Tough Budget Faces Council

Revised spending plan features smaller cut, but wide-spread pain

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The tentative Payson budget that will confront the council on Thursday has eased the cutback pain for police and fire, but clobbered parks and recreation programs, human resources and spending on capital improvements.

The council will consider a just-barely balanced budget that differs significantly from a set of projections and priorities presented two weeks ago. The latest version adds several million in projected revenue, backs away from a 10 percent across-the-board cut and comes in at 8 percent less than this year's adopted budget instead of a projected shortfall of 15 percent.

Under the tentative budget proposal, police and fire departments would each face an 11 percent cut, although they could also be seriously affected by a proposed ban on overtime. The police budget would total $4.8 million, about one third of the town's general fund spending. The fire department's budget would decline to $2.8 million -- a cut of about $341,000. The restrictions on overtime could hit the fire department especially hard, since the department routinely relies on calling in off-duty fire fighters for major blazes.

The hardest hit major department in the proposal would be parks and recreation, where the budget would plunge 37 percent to $1.5 million.

The only department slated for a net increase is streets and engineering, budgeted for a 35 percent increase to $226,500.

Spending on capital improvements would plunge by one-third, from $9 million this year to a proposed $6 million.

Mayor Kenny Evans said that the study session at 4 p.m. on Thursday in the council chambers will give the council members a chance to work through the proposed cuts and will also include a public comment period.

Other cuts fell somewhere in between, including a 10 percent cut in planning, 4 percent in the town manager's office, 16 percent in the council budget, 15 percent in the legal department and 46 percent in human re-sources.

The water department's $4.4 million budget escaped mostly unscathed, since it is funded through water sales.

"We will work out the individual line items as we go through the budget," said Evans. "There is a substantial amount of input that individual council members want to give. I do know that I've had conversations with three of the council people that have shared thoughts on three totally different areas -- so bringing them together is going to be a real effort."

Capital projects

For the most part, only capital projects that drew a substantial match from other agencies remained in the shrunken capital improvements budget. Major items remaining in the budget include $200,000 for ongoing street repairs, $540,000 to buy some land near the airport, $79,000 for the town's share of the cost of a roundabout at the highway and Airport Road, $250,000 for the American Gulch project, $1.2 million to rebuild Bonita Street and $1.5 million to repair the SRP-operated pipe pumping water out of the Blue Ridge Reservoir.

The proposed budget polishes off the town's rainy day fund and leaves a razor thin reserve of about $300,000.

Already built into the budget is the elimination of pay raises, overtime, training and travel. The budget eliminates three currently vacant positions, two of them in the police department. The budget would also cut most of the money the town had been spending on promotion -- as well as imposing a 32 percent cut to $199,000 on the newly created department of tourism and economic development.

Some of the information released on the past years reveals the way in which the current crisis grew from a reversal of a previous budget tendency to under-estimate revenues. For instance, in fiscal 2004-05 the adopted budget featured a $957,000 deficit that turned into a $348,000 gain. In 2005-06, the projected $1.2 million deficit turned into a $778,000 gain by the time the actual money flowed in. In 2006-07, the projected $1.8 million shortfall wasn't quite that bad -- coming in at a shortfall of $480,000. That started the rapid evaporation of the town's once substantial rainy day fund, which this year's sharp drop in money from sales taxes and building permits swallowed up entirely.

The proposed budget the council will consider on Thursday does include the host of grants to community organizations that had been put on a list of possible cuts at the last budget session.

Evans said the proposal is a reasonable starting point and the council will have to struggle to put anything back in -- since any money restored must be matched by a cut to keep the budget balanced.

"Anything you want done that's not in the budget, you have to find an offsetting number," he said. "This version has in fact been adapted to meet more specific needs within individual departments. We're asking departments to go back and do some more creative thinking to help us work this out."

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