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Springfield commissioner questions city’s deficit spending

Springfield city commissioners approved a $38.9 million budget this week, but one city commissioner voted against it because of what he called a trend of deficit spending.

City budgets the past three years have relied on rainy day dollars and it projected to also use reserve funds in 2016. Since 2000, the city has used its reserves 10 of the past 15 years to balance the budget.

“In my opinion, that’s a trend and we can’t continue with that trend,” City Commission Kevin O’Neill said.

Commissioners approved the city’s 2016 budget by a vote of 4-1.

Every commissioner has the right to vote as they choose, said Mayor Warren Copeland, and O’Neill’s concerns are shared by the rest of the commissioners.

“We’re in significant financial difficulty,” Copeland said. “We’ve had millions of dollars taken away from us by state government, and I think, inappropriately, breaking promises they made in the past about local government funds and that’s really hurting our budget. This coming year we’re facing a very, very difficult financial situation. We’re going to have to make some tough choices.”

The city faces a projected $930,000 deficit next year. City commissioners and staff members will select a blue-ribbon committee, including some business and community leaders, to examine possible budget cuts. The committee will also recommend whether the city should ask voters for a tax increase in November.

The city projects it will collect about $37.9 million in general fund revenues for 2016, including about $28.9 million in income taxes.

But it also estimates it will spend about $38.9 million next year, most of it — $26.4 million — on personnel costs. About $4.8 million of it will be for health insurance.

The city must cut expenses if it’s going to ask voters for more money, O’Neill said.

He wrote a letter to commissioners, City Manager Jim Bodenmiller and Finance Director Mark Beckdahl that says the city must start a new trend this year of “balancing budgets and not spending more than we take in.”

In the letter, O’Neill proposed trimming the National Trail Parks and Recreation District’s annual subsidy to about $500,000, which would cut golf operations and not re-open Splash Zone aquatics center this year. He also wrote the district should consider contracting out operation of the pool and golf courses.

Both Splash Zone and the golf courses are budgeted to open this year, Bodenmiller said, although changes to both have been discussed as options in the past.

National Trail received an extra $150,000 from the city to break even this year, bringing its total from the general fund to $1.1 million.

Next year, the district will receive about $900,000, which includes $650,000 from the general fund and $250,000 from the stormwater fund because it maintains the city’s largest stormwater areas in Buck Creek and Snyder Park.

The city’s budget for next year calls for 568 full-time employees, down from 700 about 10 years ago. The police division will have 124 employees, while the fire/rescue division will have 127.

Union workers will receive 2-percent wage increases next year, but raises for non-union employees aren’t included in the budget. The costs workers pay for health insurance are also likely to increase.

O’Neill also wrote in his letter that any department with staff members can be reduced.

“If we have any hope of generating any kind of new revenue at the ballot, we must show that we are serious about balancing the budget now — this year!” the letter says.

At budget meetings held in November, Bodenmiller laid out a plan to create both a blue ribbon committee of residents and officials to examine the budget, as well as an exploratory levy committee for the fall.

“We need input on what services people are willing to let go of,” he said.

Springfield recently received about $3 million of cuts from the state, which fully came into effect in 2013, Bodenmiller said.

The city has discussed several other cost-saving measures, including reducing bus services and eliminating other downtown events.

“The reality is we’re running out of options,” Bodenmiller said. “In the past, we were able to reduce staff and not affect services. If we reduce staff by 20 or 30 more positions, it’s going to require a cut in services.”

The Blue Ribbon Financial Advisory Committee is currently being selected and is expected to begin next month, Bodenmiller said.

“I want to make sure the group feels they’re fully informed and are able to provide sufficient input,” he said.

O’Neill voted against the budget his first year in office 24 years ago, he said. He voted for the budget in recent years because he thought the issues would be fixed.

The city is sending the wrong message by approving deficit spending, he said.

“We need to quit talking about it, let’s get moving,” O’Neill said.

Copeland believes staff members are doing all they can to reduce costs, but if the city doesn’t act fairly soon, it’s faced with a difficult situation.

“The understanding that I have from staff that while we have a budget, they’ll do everything they can to spend less than the budget calls for in order to manage the situation,” Copeland said. “The people of Springfield need to understand that we’re up against it.

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