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CdA balances budget without job cuts

Tue., Sept. 8, 2009, midnight

Melissa Crooks, circulation librarian for Coeur d’Alene Public Library, works the checkout counter Thursday.  The library’s staffing has increased only a bit over the past couple of years despite large increases in patronage and the library’s size. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Melissa Crooks, circulation librarian for Coeur d’Alene Public Library, works the checkout counter Thursday. The library’s staffing has increased only a bit over the past couple of years despite large increases in patronage and the library’s size. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Among officials’ next concerns: dwindling reserves

When Coeur d’Alene opened its new library two years ago, space quadrupled and attendance and usage more than doubled.

But staffing has only increased from 15 full-time employees to 16.5. The meager boost to the library work force combined with its soaring popularity means longer waits to reshelve books and shorter weekend hours.

“We don’t have time to take care of the collection as we should,” said Bette Ammon, the library’s director.

Not that she’s complaining, given the budget picture in other cities. “We all still have jobs, and we get to do meaningful work every day,” Ammon said.

When the city of Coeur d’Alene last week approved its annual budget that starts Oct. 1, officials cited concerns about falling reserve funds, the lack of spending on nonpersonnel items, such as vehicle replacement, and delays to other hoped-for service improvements. But the overall message reflected Ammon’s attitude: It could have been much worse.

“We haven’t had to cut off any appendages,” said city Finance Director Troy Tymesen.

Some city positions will remain unfilled, but there will be no layoffs, thanks in large part to the city’s three labor unions agreeing to forgo scheduled raises next year.

The city’s new budget for programs funded mostly through taxes is about $28 million. That’s a decline from about $29.2 million and is the first year-to-year spending drop in a budget that includes parks, police and fire services that Tymesen has seen in his eight years as finance director.

Gordon Smith, staff representative serving the Lake City Employee Association, which represents about 100 Coeur d’Alene workers, said as many as 10 jobs were saved by employees giving up a scheduled 3 percent pay increase next year. Members were persuaded to freeze salaries because budget shortfalls were verifiable and managers agreed to take the same concessions, Smith said.

“When everybody’s in it together, that’s what can help some of these deals,” Smith said.

Under Idaho law, the Coeur d’Alene City Council could have approved a property tax increase of up to 3 percent. Last week, the council held taxes steady.

“We understood that this was not the time to raise taxes,” Mayor Sandi Bloem said.

Forgoing pay raises saved the city about $600,000, Tymesen said. A 3 percent tax increase would have only raised about $450,000.

Officials said they supported forgoing pay raises for staff called for in contracts even while forgoing extra taxes that could have covered a portion of the planned wage increases because many taxpayers took pay cuts this year.

“We understand that there are people who are hurting right now,” Councilman Mike Kennedy said.

City leaders noted they took other steps to deal with budget shortfalls as well. The budget erases capital spending, defined by the city as assets that last longer than a year and cost more than $5,000. In recent years that budget has been about $500,000.

That means no new police cars or park trucks, for example. Bloem said that won’t hurt services in the short term but could cause problems later, especially if the economy doesn’t pick up.

“We will face, down the road, serious challenges to get back on track,” she said.

The city also faces falling reserves. At the end of the budget year ending September 2008, the city had $3.8 million. Reserves are expected to fall to $2.4 million by the time the 2008-’09 budget year ends at the end of month.

That’s enough to sustain the city without having to borrow money to make payroll between property tax payments, but the bottom line will need to be watched closely, Tymesen said.

“We can’t keep spending one-time money on ongoing expenses,” he said.

Another casualty of the recession was a proposed staffing boost in the city’s Fire Department. Before the severe financial dip, Fire Chief Kenny Gabriel hoped this would be the year the department could add three firefighters.

That, however, was pulled from consideration.

“We fully understand,” Gabriel said. “These are difficult times.”



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