The Woodland Park City Council bickered over a new downsized draft of the city’s 2017 budget at a three hour work session on December 8, resulting in only a few areas of agreement.
It was recently determined that the city’s original 2017 proposed budget would leave them with an undersized emergency reserve. The latest proposed budget was haggled over before a room full of concerned citizens while council members whined and flung insults at each other. A final vote will occur at the regular council meeting on December 15.
At the work session, City Manager David Buttery presented the new draft of the proposed 2017 budget. The city staff examined the city’s expenses in detail, and came up with more than $110,000 in savings. That didn’t stop council members John Schafer, Val Carr, Paul Saunier, and Noel Sawyer from taking pot shots at the plan.
Several elected leaders had hoped that the city could trim as much as $300,000 off their budget. While the city found significant savings, it was still far short of this goal. A 2014 city council resolution requires that the city keep 10 percent of the budget as an emergency reserve, or around $800,000. The original 2017 budget plan would have put the reserve at $103,000. The revised budget would allow for a $213,000 emergency reserve. By comparison, this is smaller than what the small town of Green Mountain Falls currently maintains.
Buttery says this is a temporary situation caused by the city’s choice to not incur additional debt to build the aquatic center, and poses no significant threat. The emergency fund will recover quickly. He says that when the city council approved three major capital expenditure projects, they knew it would tighten the budget, referring to the city maintenance facility, the rebuild of Memorial Park, and the aquatic center.
“If we had an emergency, we could get money from other funds,” said Buttery. “Don’t decide this based on ‘The sky is falling.’ We are agile and flexible enough.”
The city looked at four areas to trim the fat off the 2017 proposed budget; salaries, the aquatic center, vehicles, and special projects.
To save money on salaries and benefits, a proposed 3 percent pay increase would be frozen. Also, five vacancies on the city staff would be left vacant for all or part of the year. This would save $172,000.
According to Buttery, the staff’s pay is based on statistics kept by the Colorado Municipal League, and comparisons with other small mountain towns like Gunnison, Montrose, and Salida, as well as with competitors like Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs. Buttery says the city salaries are right where they should be, but Councilman John Schafer claims the city staff is overpaid.
Councilman Noel Sawyer said he opposes making the employees suffer because of the decision by city officials to take on several major capital projects at one time. He suggested that a fixed amount like $50,000 be spent on bonuses for the lowest paid employees. He then started an auction-like bidding to raise the amount. Mayor Pro Tem Carrol Harvey strongly disagreed, and told him to cut out the “Bernie Sanders socialism!” Harvey also chastised Carr and Saunier for discussing city business outside of council meetings, accusing them of wrong doing.
For the aquatic center, it was suggested that a number of frills might be eliminated or delayed to save money. Features that could get cut include the climbing wall, the competitive timing system for swim meets, the solar panels, the water slide, the sun deck, the sky lights, decorative details throughout the building, and more. Another possibility is lowering the quality of the construction materials being used, like using a lower grade of steel and aluminum. Savings on the aquatic center could total nearly $2.8 million.
Council members argued with the Buttery about the actual cost of the aquatic center. Buttery and Harvey both claim that the $10.1 million bond approved by voters was never the total cost of the project, and that construction costs have risen significantly since the vote. It is now estimated that the pool itself plus other associated costs could total $11.9 million. The original estimate was $14.4 million.
The city operates a large array of vehicles in the course of its operations. The city staff looked at how they are used, and determined that two vehicles could be sold and three inefficient vehicles could be replaced, without reducing services. The majority of these vehicles are operated by the maintenance department and the police department.
“With these vehicles, it’s less about mileage and more about responsiveness and the ability to get where we need to go,” said Buttery.
Schafer disagreed. In his own separate budget presentation, he claimed that the city should get rid of 18 of its 79 vehicles, based on the number of city employees rather than on the function and uses of the vehicles. He also contends that city employees should carpool and use their personal vehicles to do their city jobs.
“Although we are not in agreement, we are making good progress. We knew the capital improvements would affect the budget, and the costs increased,” Schafer said. “We will continue to challenge the staff to do better and spend less.”
The final area the city looked to for savings was special projects. The city created the new Special Projects Department out of the bones of the defunct Office of Economic Development earlier this year. Items big and small were on the chopping block. For example, the staff Christmas party and serving dinners at early council meetings could be eliminated. A total of $121,000 in savings was found in this sector.
However, Carr complained that this was the wrong way to go about saving money. “We should be looking at big ticket items, not $500 parties,” he said.
The greatest audience interest at last week’s meeting, however, was generated through a proposed $5,000 reduction in the Community Investment Fund. This supports many non-profits and special events in the community. Many in the audience were there representing groups like The Cruise Above The Clouds and The Woodland Park Music Series, which receive money from the fund every year.
In his presentation, Schafer objected to the very existence of the Special Projects Department. He alleged that Buttery overstepped his authority by creating a new department without approval from city council and by appointing a department head without public advertising or competition for the position. Schafer was reminded by the city attorney that these issues were to be discussed in executive session and asked to cut short his comments. Schafer contends that some of the work done by Special Projects should be done by volunteers.
Sawyer believes that the city still has left a lot of excess in the budget. He objected to the $42,000 for IT and computer repairs. (Sawyer owns a computer business.) He also complained about the $35,000 paid by the city to contract with Teller County for animal control services. “Give me a truck and I’ll go do it myself! I can get a dog or a cat!” he announced. When Buttery tried to discuss the reasons for these and other expenses, Sawyer refused to allow him to explain.
“We know where every penny comes from and how it is spent,” claimed Buttery, citing stewardship as one of the values of the city’s government.
Following the lengthy budget discussion, Mayor Neil Levy asked the council, “We have to make a decision in one week. How do we go forward?” He concluded that the council needs to provide better direction for the city manager and should start discussing the budget earlier in the future.
At the end of the three hour meeting, Buttery concluded that the consensus of the council was to keep the $5,000 for the Community Investment Fund. Sawyer will pass on attending the Colorado Municipal League meeting so the money can be spent on a volunteer party. There was still disagreement about salaries, but a few other fiscal adjustments are being considered.
The final vote on the 2017 Woodland Park budget will be on December 15.