Faced with lower revenue for the last few months, St. Marys City Council is considering a proposed budget based on a 15% reduction across the board.
Council held an online work session with staff last week to walk through the proposed budget for fiscal year 2021. The city begins its next fiscal year on July 1.
As the community has reacted to COVID-19, the city has seen a 35% drop in Local Option Sales Tax and an 8 to 12% drop in other revenue streams. With the state talking about a 15% reduction too, city staff looked at the change in LOST and calculated that lower number across 12 months, city manager Robby Horton said.
“We kind of had to back up, regroup and go a little bit deeper into the budget and what we’re putting before you is pretty much a bare bones budget with consideration to still be able to do some stuff, some of our essential functions,” Horton told council. “… We’ve got it down to where we can still function, still provide the same level of service we’re at but we do have the contingency to be able to go lower if we need to. That’s just laying the ground work for our thinking and the process after we saw how bad it was affecting us.”
Staff will be closely monitoring the budget and have developed different plans depending on how things change.
“If the economy does rebound, even at a slower pace, we’re prepared for that. So we do have a plan B, C and even a D if we have to,” Horton said.
Finance director Jennifer Brown talked specifically about two revenue line items that have decreased or are expected to decrease. The budget includes slightly less revenue from property taxes as staff anticipate that residents and business owners may not be able to make those payments on time.
There’s a change in personal property taxes, too, from $502,800 in the adopted 2020 budget down to $417,000 in the proposed 2021 budget. The bulk — 97% — of personal property taxes comes from cars. Staff have already seen those taxes fall off and expect that to continue as people aren’t buying cars like they usually do, Brown said.
“We just went through, reached out to counterparts, reached out to other cities, city managers, talked with them on researching,” Brown said wrapping up her rundown on revenues. “… So we went through and anticipated a decrease across the board. So that’s where we have landed with our revenues at this time.”
The budget also includes a 5% increase in health insurance that raised expenses for departments.
Turning to the police department, Horton pointed out an increase in budgeted overtime — because staffing is up — that’s offset by reducing the amount of investigative work the city pays the sheriff’s office to do.
At full staff, the department should have 30 sworn officers but staffing had fallen to 14 officers last year and the sheriff’s office took over its investigations to free up staff. The city hired a new police chief in August and the force is at 20 officers currently, Horton said. The proposed budget includes funding for 26 officers.
“The chief has done a fantastic job at getting qualified people in and getting folks through the academy and we’ve got our number back up,” Horton said. “… That allows him to have a complete patrol division. He’ll be able to reopen his investigative division and that will also allow for one dog handler.”
The department is also looking at an increase in vehicle costs to accommodate those new officers. What’s left in the motorpool are older Dodge Chargers that have issues and aren’t reliable as emergency vehicles.
“They’ve become kind of a mechanical nightmare for our mechanics and our officers,” Horton said.
In the fire department, staff had hoped to spend $70,000 to replace its Jaws of Life — which is 20 years old and doesn’t work as well on new cars — and $110,000 to replace a 1984 brush truck.
“It’s eat up with rust but the pump still works,” Horton said. “We can put it out in the woods if we have to.”
Both expenditures were delayed another year and staff are looking for a grant to purchase the Jaws of Life.
Light at Winding Road
The budget initially included money to install a traffic signal at Winding Road and Colerain but the city can’t move forward because a study found a light isn’t warranted, public works director Bobby Marr told council. The study was conducted before the shutdown while school was still in session, though the numbers still may be skewed to the low side because of construction on Colerain.
“What’s happening right now is a lot of people are just avoiding that interchange completely,” Marr said. “… At this point, I think we need to hold off.”
Atlas, the company that conducted the study, suggested waiting until next spring to take another look, once the road has been finished and people have learned the new interchange, Marr said. There’s also an apartment complex being built nearby that could affect traffic too, Horton added.
Council also talked about the senior center budget and how the center may work in the coming months. The center closed in March amid COVID-19 precautions and staff have been delivering the lunches the center usually serves to members since then. Delivery will end June 12 when the stay-at-home order for high-risk people expires.
What’s next is still up in the air. Maybe its curbside pick up for lunch vs. delivery or providing meals to those who truly need them vs. everyone who’s a member, said Donna Larsen, who oversees the program.
“We just cannot figure out a way that we could safely reopen right now and practice social distancing,” Larsen said.
Council member Dave Reilly proposed revising the budget for six months of operations and holding a work session to talk about how the program may function in the future.
With the center closed for at least three months, Horton agreed that there's an opportunity to talk about the future.
“Now is a good time for you as a council to evaluate exactly how you want this service to be provided,” he said.
Council members Linda Williams and Allen Rassi concurred, with Williams suggesting that the future might be small group activities instead of one large group.
“I think we need to look very seriously at what the future of this center is,” Williams said. “... This COVID-19 virus has changed the way that we look at everything but probably it’s changed the way that we need to look at the senior center more than any other area of our services.”
The proposed budget is available at www.stmarysga.gov in the document center under the finance tab.