Chewelah Mayor Clancy Bauman has recommended cuts that will affect the employment of five personnel to help reduce the $250,000 deficit in the general fund for Fiscal Year 2013.
Bauman proposed his recommendations at the Sept. 24 Chewelah City Council budget work session as the council continues to search for ways to reduce the general fund expenses due to recent state audit findings that ruled it illegal to transfer excessive surplus from the electric utility to the general fund.
The general fund serves departments such as police, fire, streets, parks, library, museum, cemetery and administration. The water, sewer, garbage and electric departments maintain separate budgets.
Bauman proposed cutting the city secretary position, which is paid $20,000 in wages and benefits through general fund while $49,307 is split up among the utilities for billing services and similar duties. If the position is cut, City Administrator Mike Frizzell said existing administrative staff would absorb the duties, such as grant writing and program planning.
Frizzell also said they would move the administrative offices to the same area as the electric department staff so they can work together to make sure city hall is always staffed.
Councilman John May argued that it is easier to train someone on a piece of equipment rather than asking someone to make up for a lack of secretarial experience. May said he believes that public works can maintain the same level of service with less employees.
Frizzell said they currently can not keep up with the level of street maintenance they should because of the lack of man hours available in public works. The duties the secretary does would continue with less staff, however cutting someone from public works would reduce services, Frizzell said.
Bauman also recommended eliminating the park/cemetery/mapping position to save the general fund $46,000. He said although it is a valued service, it is not public health or safety related. The non-critical duties will be eliminated while others will be assumed by remaining staff with the option of having a short-term hire in the summer.
The remaining wages and benefits paid through utilities for both those positions will help balance those budgets as well since they have undergone so many cuts in the past, Frizzell said.
Bauman recommended reducing base electric charges by $6.60 to make the base charge an even $2.
He also recommended adding a 15 percent garbage utility tax to generate an additional $50,000 in the general fund. The tax would cost each customer $2-3 per month, which would still mean a savings of more than $4 for the customer each month.
The water and sewer is already taxed at 15 percent, and electric is taxed at 6 percent but increasing electric tax takes a public vote.
If each tax is raised one percent, to 16 percent for water, sewer and garbage, then it would add an additional $13,000 to the general fund. Furthermore, increasing it to 17 percent would mean an additional $26,000 to the general fund and the customers would still be saving about $2.70 a month.
Councilman Nick Lasko said he favors more taxes over losing services because the city rates are already very low.
“We can’t still provide this level of service while living this cheaply,” Lasko said. “We can’t have it both ways.”
Carra Nupp said if there is no community programs like the pool and library, kids get into trouble.
“How much more can we take from them? There’s not much left,” Nupp said.
Frizzell said the reason to keep taxes low would be to allow residents the ability to afford annexing into the library district since the council has proposed cutting all library funding in 2013. They currently fund it at $100,000 while the Libraries of Stevens County also contributes $100,000 for some staffing, management and all materials.
Annexing into the Stevens County library district would add another taxation onto the residents at 39 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, or about $50 a year for the average property owner within city limits. Since it is publicly voted issue, Frizzell said it gives residents the option to decide whether they would like to support a library. Reducing the electric bill would give citizens the ability if they choose that direction.
By eliminating funding to the library ($100,000), the contract position for building cleaning and maintenance services ($12,000), city secretarial position ($20,000), adding a 15 percent garbage utility tax ($50,000), eliminating non-essential park and cemetery maintenance duties to be absorbed by other staff ($46,000) that still leaves $26,000 that Mayor Bauman said would have to be reduced in the law enforcement department by means of cutting hours from last hired position or cutting an entire position.
Councilwoman Dorothy Knauss suggested that they should use reserve funds before cutting anything else to allow another year of time before having to make those decisions.
Lasko said the short-term solution to postpone cuts for one year while depleting reserve funds is not a responsible solution.
Chief of Police Troy Anderson asked that the council maintain their current level of staffing with five officers in addition to the Chief.
Often times there is only one patrolman on duty and sometimes they cannot respond to all calls with the current staff. Anderson said a majority of his department’s budget goes to the judicial system to pay for 911 services and the county jail in Colville.
Councilman May asked if the chief could work as a full-time patrolman. Although he takes some shifts as needed, Anderson said the administrative work that is required is too great to eliminate his position.
The council discussed a letter received from Sunshine Disposal and Recycling to purchase the garbage utility for $70,000. The council members seemed in agreement that would only be a short-term fix for the year and not worth it since they would have to find way to cuts in the next year while losing control of the garbage rates in the process.
Bauman said they have talked to seven attorneys about the possibility of opposing the state auditor’s ruling to stop transferring funds from the electric utility to general fund. However, they all recommended not to pursue it because of the expense and unlikeliness that the ruling would be in favor of the city. Also, if they rule against the city, they might end up requiring the city to pay back everything taken from the electric utility in the last 20 years.
Frizzell said they are asking Rep. Shelly Short to request an opinion on the matter from the Washington State Attorney General, but does not expect to receive a favorable opinion.
The next Chewelah City Council meeting will be Wednesdsay, Oct. 3 at 6:30 p.m. The next budget work session will be Monday, Oct. 8 at 6 p.m.
By Kellie Trudeau, The Independent Staff