Springfield budget cuts debate turns heated, could go to ballot again

Springfield city commissioners and staff members are divided on how to balance next year’s budget after voters rejected a proposed income tax increase, leaving a projected $1.4 million short fall.

During a contentious, lengthy meeting, they couldn’t reach a decision on the budget. So they discussed approving a temporary budget in December to buy more time to discuss possible cuts.

>>RELATED: Springfield income tax hike fails after more ballots counted

City Manager Jim Bodenmiller wants commissioners to seriously consider going back on the ballot next year. The income tax increase failed by 227 votes.

“I do think we can pass a levy,” Bodenmiller said. “Unlike other situations in the past, people believe in it. The harsh realities are setting in with people.”

The proposed budget shows the city is projected to generate $38.4 million in general fund revenues next year. However, it’s estimated to spend $39.8 million — leaving a $1.4 million deficit.

If left unresolved, the city’s reserves will be left with about $470,000 — or 1.2 percent of its overall budget.

Last week Springfield city staff members recommended about $1.5 million in cuts next year, which could include layoffs, closure of the water park, fewer police officers on the street and eliminating funding to a local tourism agency.

>>READ MORE: $417K in cuts could close Springfield tourism agency’s doors

Springfield commissioners and staff members held another contentious discussion Tuesday night about the proposals, including a large turnout of people who spoke against the proposal to eliminate funding to the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau.

City commissioners would have to vote on a first reading of another ballot issue in early January, Bodenmiller said. If the May issue is passed, Bodenmiller said, it would become effective on July 1, generating about $3.3 million next year.

City Commissioner Kevin O’Neill again suggested cutting from other benefit packages, including health care coverage and longevity payments to workers. The city is projected to spend about $4.9 million — or 13.9 percent — of its general fund on health insurance, as well as about $750,000 in longevity payments.

O’Neill wants to cut benefits rather than eliminating jobs and services, such as closing a fire station, he said.

“We’re not a Fortune 500 company,” O’Neill said. “We can’t pay higher wages with higher benefits like the bigger companies do.”

The benefits are employee retention tools, Bodenmiller said.

“We are having trouble keeping people because of the wages we pay,” Bodenmiller said. “To take away (longevity) from current employees would be a disservice to them and you’ll lose people. If you start cutting the crap out of the health care system, you’re going to lose people.”

The best way to retain talent may be increasing hourly wages, City Commissioner Dan Martin said.

“I look at (longevity) as an additional benefit,” Martin said. “If we could afford to offer it, I think it’s a good tool, but I don’t think we’re in that position anymore.”

The only employees who can have longevity pay cut are the non-union personnel, Bodenmiller said. Remaining employees have the annual payouts included in union contracts.

“You can’t just say get rid of it,” Bodenmiller said.

It was a waste of time to make suggestions because Bodenmiller was only going to argue it, Martin said.

“You have in your mind what you want to do and you’re going to do it,” Martin said. “I’m just trying to advise you what I need to see to have an approvable budget.”

Last month an independent audit of the city’s finances showed it must both pass an income tax increase and make cuts to sustain its revenue for the foreseeable future.

Finance Director Mark Beckdahl expressed support for some of the proposed cuts, including reductions for both the Municipal Court and the Clerk of Courts budgets.

“Quite candidly, they are two areas that have continued to escalate in their costs while the rest of the departments have reduced theirs,” he said.

Several other options in the audit included reviewing consolidating services with Clark County, such as 9-1-1 dispatch and building and code departments. Martin said he would consider meeting with county commissioners to complete such deals. The city could save $500,00 next year if it were to combine its 9-1-1 dispatch operation with Clark County, O’Neill said.

“I don’t think we should go back with another levy request until we’ve shown that we are executing getting those types of recommendations done,” Martin said.

None of those recommendations could happen quickly and some are already taking place, Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland said.

“We’re going to be broke before those happen where we sit now,” Copeland said.

The cuts being discussed were explained to residents as part of the tax increase issue, such as shuttering Fire Station No. 5 and the Johnny Lytle police substation and eliminating up to 35 jobs, Bodenmiller said.

“We have to face that fact that we told the public that there would have to be significant cuts made,” Copeland said. “That’s what we told them … If we don’t follow through on that, we’ll have a very hard time convincing people that they should’ve voted for it.”

The specific cuts are being used as punishment for not passing the levy, O’Neill said.

“It’s not punishment,” Bodenmiller said. “I’ve said this for years — at some point, it’s going to take service cuts.”

Commissioners will likely hold a special meeting next week to decide how to move forward.

A temporary budget must be approved soon for the city to operate in January, Beckdahl said, and a permanent budget will likely have to be approved by April 1.

“We’re running up against a significant deadline,” Beckdahl said.

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