'No Tricks' As GR Budget Takes Shape

May 23, 2008
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Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a series of stories examining the city of Grand Rapids’ proposed budget for fiscal year 2009.

GRAND RAPIDS — In a few short weeks, city commissioners will appropriate another general operating budget for the coming fiscal year, and this one looks like it will top $122 million and result in a small surplus.

City Manager Kurt Kimball and his staff have been the main architects of the spending plan for fiscal year 2009, which starts July 1, and he said they designed the budget with a mix of revenue increases and spending cuts.

“We didn’t do it completely by eliminating employees and services. We didn’t do it completely by hiking revenues. We didn’t do it completely by accounting gimmicks and tricks. In fact, we didn’t do any of it by accounting gimmicks and tricks,” said Kimball.

“But we did do a variety of things to slay the beast of an operating deficit to the point where I’m recommending a budget that has a slight surplus of about $75,000,” he said.

The budget features higher fees for services the city provides, a move that should be worth about $800,000 in new revenue for the year, and raises the fine for parking meter violations by two-thirds from $12 to $20.

“I think there is a rightful place for user fees, separate and distinct from what general tax dollars fund. So we’ve done some work to increase those user fees,” said Kimball.

Kimball said the spending cuts were more painful to make. These include the elimination of the general local revenue sharing account, which gave $355,000 to social agencies for what Kimball said were “very worthwhile programs.”

“You can be sure I’m sorry to see a recommendation to discontinue funding those,” he said. “In years past when I’ve suggested the elimination of that funding, generally the commission has seen fit to restore that funding. This year, I’m not so sure.”

The new budget will also contain spending for 17.5 fewer employees, as 14.5 positions will be done away with, and three will be transferred out of the general fund. Seven of the lost jobs are coming in the fire department, but all are currently vacant. But Kimball said the city expects to add up to a dozen firefighters in January, posts that will be necessary due to attrition in the department.

“I think that this city will not suffer in any way, shape or form in terms of a loss of their protection from fire, even with seven fewer firefighter positions. How can I say that? I can say that because we’re without the services of those positions now because they’re vacant, and we really have been able to respond in a timely basis with all the amounts of equipment and the numbers of the persons that would ordinarily respond,” said Kimball.

“You can get some to disagree with me, but I think the chief shares my view,” Kimball said of Grand Rapids Fire Chief John VanSolkema.

The other cuts are a code compliance post and a secretarial position. Five more, though, still have to be identified to meet the general fund’s job-reduction goal. Over seven fiscal years, including the upcoming one, the city has cut its general fund work force by 179 positions — or about 20 percent of the fund’s staffing level in 2003.

“The impact on services is as small as I can make it,” said Kimball of the latest job cuts.

The general operating fund pays for police and fire, city attorneys, parks, street lights, traffic, planning, economic development, community development, code enforcement and stormwater management, along with tax collections, property assessments, the clerk’s office and the City Commission.

For 2009, the city looks to spend nearly $47 million and $24 million for police and fire protection services, respectively. Taken together, spending for those departments accounts for about 57 percent of the general fund’s total budget.

Kimball has set aside $1 million in the fund’s contingency account, which would cover unforeseen events that might arise during the fiscal year.

The contingency account normally holds $1.5 million but Kimball said the expected revenue is strong enough to drop it by a third.

Although some might not consider a surplus totaling $75,000 that big of an achievement, last year’s budget had a $5 million deficit and it put a hefty dent in the reserve fund. When the design process began in March, the FY09 spending plan was $3.3 million in the red.

But even though the numbers work, commissioners — who have been very involved in the process — still have to weigh in on the budget with their final says. In addition, something else has to occur before Kimball can put this budget to bed.

“What has to be accomplished in this budget and what has not yet been, of course, are the concessions that are needed from all of our bargaining units in order to make this budget work,” he said.

Next week: The task of getting the employee unions on board.

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