ITo help make up for a $250,000 loss in the general fund, the Chewelah City Council plans to eliminate funding for the Chewelah Public Library beginning 2013.
The reduction in general funds is due to the recent state audit finding, which no longer allows the city to transfer electric utility funds into the general fund as they have done for many years. The electric funds are only meant to be used for electric maintenance, improvements, and needs of the electrical department.
At the first budget meeting on Sept. 10, the council decided to make public health and safety their first priority when finding a direction for making significant cuts. This includes fire, police and street maintenance. Water, sewer, garbage, and electric departments all have separate funds and maintain their own budget outside of the general fund.
Frizzell said it is the obligation of the city to keep citizens safe and no council member, although many understand the needs of the library, thought that library services were more important than police and fire. Frizzell said it comes down to “books or police officers.” Funding the library at any more than zero dollars would force the city to cut one or two officers, he said. The city employs six officers including the Chief of Police.
Eliminating the library would give back $100,000 to the general fund.
The city library is not entirely funded by the city as they contract with the library district for management and one staff member. The city pays for one employee, the building and upkeep.
Some council members suggested contracting police services with Stevens County Sheriff’s Office, which would eliminate the city police department and save money. However, many thought that it would be a lot less service for not much less cost and emergency response times would increase.
Frizzell said he believes that there are other ways to keep the library in operation. Letting the citizens vote on whether to annex into the Libraries of Stevens County would give them the choice to say if those services are important to them, he said. Annexing would add another layer of taxation onto the citizens and would put the regional library district in control. If the residents were to vote to annex into the district, that would not be in effect until January 2014.
Frizzell said there may be possibilities for the city to let the district use the current building and be open a few days a week until more funding is found.
Many county residents use the library as much as the city residents, he said. It is the second busiest branch next to Colville’s library as it is central to the county.
It might also be possible in the future to annex the city fire department into Stevens County Fire District 4, however that cannot be done by year end when the budget is due as the proposition has to pass before eliminating that service.
Frizzell said that administration has also decided to end George Eberth’s event manager/building maintenance contract in December, which will make up another $12,000 in the general fund. It will also give back $18,000 to the electric fund since the contract is split between both departments. Frizzell said he and other office employees may have to take on maintenance duties in city hall.
Since the electrical department has been supporting the general fund for so long, they have not been able to keep up with the regular maintenance. Frizzell suggested they give $150,000 back to the electric department and the other $100,000 back to the customers by reducing the base electric charge by about $6, which is currently at $8.60 per month. The council members agreed.
To make up another $50,000 in the general fund budget, the council has considered adding a 15 percent garbage utility tax. There is currently no tax on garbage services. Taxing these services is a legal way to raise revenue to the general fund. All city residents are required to use city electric, water/sewer, and garbage. Water and sewer are already taxed at 15 percent.
The additional tax would cost customers about $2 or $3 each month, Frizzell said, however they will save $6 on the base electric charge.
So cutting Eberth’s contract, adding a 15 percent garbage utility tax, and cutting the library would reduce the $250,000 debt in general fund by about $162,000. The other $138,000 would have to be made up in cutting personnel and that decision is solely up to Mayor Clancy Bauman. However, the criteria that the council has set for keeping public health and safety the priority will guide Mayor Bauman’s decisions.
Other suggestions for budget savings included furloughing employees, taking away benefits and selling property.
Councilwoman Sharon Ludwig suggested the city furlough employees to keep more employees on as they all seem necessary. However, Frizzell said they could put those numbers together but the employees who work for general fund are limited and they are already working more hours than they are paid for. Many employees are paid through the electric fund already.
Councilwoman Carra Nupp suggested that they look into costs of employee benefits to be able to keep more people on staff as well. However, that would require union negotiations and not a likely solution, Frizzell said.
Mayor Clancy Bauman said they should sell the pool for a low price because it is so expensive to maintain. The pool costs the city more money than it brings in each year.
The next budget meeting will be Monday, Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. The next city council meeting is Wednesday, Sept 19 at 6:30 p.m.
By Kellie Trudeau, The Independent Staff