Brainerd City Council: Steps taken to balance budget
A Brainerd City Council budget workshop Tuesday resulted in a few decisions to balance the proposed 2016 budget. In September, the council approved a 25 percent 2016 preliminary levy increase. The preliminary tax levy is $6.1 million, which is $1...
A Brainerd City Council budget workshop Tuesday resulted in a few decisions to balance the proposed 2016 budget.
In September, the council approved a 25 percent 2016 preliminary levy increase. The preliminary tax levy is $6.1 million, which is $1.6 million more than the 2015 tax levy. The final levy adopted in December can be lower than the preliminary levy, but it cannot be higher.
Information provided by finance Director Connie Hillman showed even with the levy increase, there's still a $678,317 shortfall between revenues and expenditures to be worked out to balance the budget.
"The city needs additional revenues or reduction of expenses, or combination of the two," Hillman said. "This is what we want down to zero or some plan to get it to zero or close to it."
Tuesday, the council made decisions on a few ongoing budget items, in order to reduce the deficit.
For 2015, the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport had requested a 5 percent increase in the annual contribution it receives from the city. The airport currently receives $155,500 annually from the city, a 5 percent increase represents a $7,775 increase. Both the city and Crow Wing County provide annual funding to the airport, a practice that has gone on since the airport's inception in the 1940s.
Hillman asked the council where they stood on granting the increase to the airport. The council couldn't take official action Tuesday via a motion and vote, so in lieu of a formal vote, council members signaled their approval on certain issues via exaggerated head nods.
Council President Gary Scheeler said the county had decided not to grant the airport its requested increase, and personally stood opposed to granting the increase.
"They're basically, well-funded compared to the city of Brainerd," Scheeler said.
Scheeler also mentioned the ongoing issue of annexing the airport into the city of Brainerd, because of the planned 2016 utility extension project, which will provide water and sewer service to the airport.
"The (Airport Commission) just looked at me like, 'We don't want to be part of Brainerd,'" Scheeler said. "And that's real hard for me to look over and say, 'You should get an increase.'"
City Administrator Jim Thoreen asked the council members if they agreed with denying the airport's request for a funding increase, and was met with a chorus of nodding heads.
The council also agreed to deny the increased funding request from the Brainerd Public Library. The library had requested $153,500 from the city to balance its budget, Hillman said, which is an increase of $12,500 over its current funding. Scheeler said he felt the library shouldn't be granted its increase.
Council member Dave Pritschet said the library is extremely important and serves a vital role in the community. However, library staff never showed what would have to be cut if the funding request wasn't granted, he said.
"I have a hard time saying we're going to increase it $12,000 if I don't know what the difference between the two scenarios are," Pritschet said.
Council member Mary Koep, who represents the city on the Kitchigami Regional Library Board, said if the additional $12,000 isn't granted, it's possible the library would lose 3-4 hours of operation per year.
"So I would support keeping the levy the same," Koep said.
Council members nodded in agreement to keep the library funding level the same, and to not grant the increased request.
Fire department funding
The restructuring of the Brainerd Fire Department to a paid on-call department resulted in a savings of $275,000 for the coming year. Hillman asked the council what it wanted to do with the savings, as the council had indicated previously the savings should be spent on capital needs for the department.
Historically, when the department has purchased equipment, the cost gets allocated to the communities the department serves, Hillman said. If the department issues debt to pay for the equipment, those costs will also get allocated out to the other partners.
Scheeler said the communities served by the fire department want no increase in fees for the coming year. Putting the savings toward capital costs will help keep the fees flat, he said, and put a "significant chunk toward a significant investment."
"We really can never put too much away to save it," Hillman said.
With interest rates the lowest they've been in years, Hillman said, it makes more sense to bond for certain items, as the cost to borrow money is low.
"If we have a shot at getting money at less than 3 percent, we get all of it," council member Gabe Johnson said. "It's simple math."
Council members agreed to put the savings into the department's capital fund and to try and keep user fees for the communities served by the department flat.
City hall repairs
Council members also agreed to make minimal repairs to city hall's heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, instead of spending $800,000 to replace the system, which has fallen into disrepair.
The council decided to spend $69,000 on two repairs to key components which will help the system function on a regular basis, Thoreen said, instead of its current sporadic performance.
"That doesn't take care of the total picture, though," Thoreen said.
Hillman brought up the idea of putting $40,000 into the budget to hire a consultant to do a full evaluation of the city's buildings, and to provide advice on how to proceed with upgrades and repairs.
"We either figure out how many problems we've got and optimal solutions," Thoreen said. "Or we do the patching and repair, and that's not been working real well."
Koep said she supported spending $69,000 on the repairs, but not spending $40,000 on the study. The city already knows what problems it has with its buildings, she said, and the money would be better spent on repairs.
The council made a decision on the $1.6 million in capital requests that had been presented by the city's different departments. The initial requests totaled $2.2 million, and had been pared down to $1.6 million.
The council agreed to bond for two capital requests, a new, $430,000 fire truck and a new, $145,000 dump truck for the street and sewer departments, which reduces the amount of capital requests to a little more than $1 million. Also, reducing the $800,000 budgeted for HVAC repairs to the agreed-upon $69,000, brings the total amount of capital requests to around $270,000.
While discussing the capital requests, Scheeler said he had a different point to make, and proceeded to outline the different contributions the city makes to area organizations like the Northland Arboretum, The Center and the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport, which he said were outsized compared to the county and the city of Baxter. Brainerd needs to stop playing the "big brother" for the area, he said.
"I look at it, we're more like a county administrator, we're trying to handle the whole region," Scheeler said. "We're worried about everybody else except for us."
"I hear what you're saying, but we can't address that for 2016," Hillman responded.
Possible police cut
Previous budget discussions had also presented the idea of eliminating one police officer from the Brainerd Police Department's roster of 24 sworn officers. A grant from Community Oriented Policing Services through the U.S. Department of Justice, set to expire in August, had paid for one officer, who could be eliminated when the grant expires.
Police Chief Corky McQuiston defended the need for the full staff of 24 officers. Proactive, self-initiated activity and involvement in community policing activities are the two biggest crime deterrents, he said.
"I can't stress the importance of those two things enough," McQuiston said. "The problem is, is any reduction in police officer staffing will have a negative effect on those."
A reduction in staffing doesn't mean there will be less incidents for officers to respond to, McQuiston said. Rather, the remaining officers will only be spread more thinly and more arrests will go unmade.
"When you reduce the police officer staff, you don't reduce those 15,000 calls (per year)," McQuiston said. "We still have car crashes, we still have the shoplifters, the assaults, the fights."
The remaining officers will be busy handling those incidents, McQuiston said, and won't have time to devote to community policing activities and proactive, self-initiated activity.
"We just kind of continue to just get by," McQuiston said. "We don't have a chance to look at things that other agencies do as far as crime analysis, crime prevention."
The department didn't receive a COPS grant because of a well-written grant proposal, McQuiston said. Instead, the grant administrators looked at local crime statistics and the reduction of officers, and decided the department needed the extra officer.
"Surely, yeah, they need 24 police officers," McQuiston said. "Or their problems aren't going to get any better."
Reducing police officer staff means less of a police presence in the community, Pritschet said, which will actually mean an increase in crime. Business owners also appreciate having a police presence around, he said, as it lends an atmosphere of safety to an area.
"There's a direct relation to our quality of life," McQuiston said. "And I think our police department does an incredible job."
A statement for or against eliminating the one police officer wasn't made, but council members seemed to be in agreement about keeping the officer.
Historically, the city has adopted the final budget and levy at the second council meeting in December, Hillman said, which this year is Dec. 21. The city's truth in taxation hearing is set for Dec. 14.
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