Still-Tight Budgets Squeezed

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

Payson Police Chief Don Engler

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Pete Aleshire/Roundup

Payson town Attorney Sam Streichman

Already tight budgets will shrink or barely hold their own in the fiscal year that starts in June, according to preliminary budget figures presented to the Payson Town Council last week.

The council’s work study session last week focused on about half of the town’s departments, with a session scheduled this evening to look at the rest of the budgets — including the fire department.

The budget presentations last week mingled good news for the capital spending budget due mostly to federal stimulus grants, but another lean year for town departments thanks to a stubborn recession that will trim town tax revenues by maybe 3-5 percent on top of this year’s 10-15 percent drop in most categories — including sales taxes.

If the council ultimately adopts the budget presented so far, most departments will make do with a little less money than this year.

Town Council: $126,000

The council’s budget will rise from $117,500 to $126,400, mostly based on how many council members accept the individual and family health insurance coverage that comes with the job.

Town Manager: $162,000

The adopted budget for the town manager’s office will plummet by 29 percent, mostly because the layoffs last year included the town manager’s administrative assistant.

However, the workload in the office will also change due to the plan to hire a new chief financial officer. For most of the past year, Town Manager Debra Galbraith has been serving as the manager, chief financial officer and human resources director. Spending in the town manager’s office peaked at $265,000 in 2007-2008.

“You’ve set a good example for other departments,” said Councilor Ed Blair.

“Well, I hope so,” said Galbraith, “since I’m the only one in it.”

Human Resources: $95,400

The budget for human resources would rise slightly next year, but remain far below the peak of $271,180 — when the then-town council disbanded the department and laid off the then-director. The discussions that led to that reorganization later led to a state Attorney General’s Office finding that the council violated the state open meeting law. The budget for next year still doesn’t include a department head for human resources, but does upgrade the position of the lower-ranking staff member who has been handling personnel issues for the past year.

Legal Services: $500,000

The town’s legal department will spend about $5,000 less than last year, according to the preliminary budget.

Payson has two full-time attorneys and three or four support staff, a relatively large legal staff for a town its size. Many small cities rely almost entirely on outside, contract attorneys, rather than having a full-time attorney — much less two. The legal department suffered one of the smallest cuts of any department in the December layoffs and reductions.

Town Attorney Sam Streichman took pains to emphasize the 39-percent reduction in supply costs, noting that the legal department took the lead in cleaning its own offices when the town cut its outside maintenance contracts.

The town’s legal department not only provides legal advice to the town council and the various boards and commissions, but also handles the prosecution of misdemeanors in the local justice court — which includes many drunk driving cases. The legal staff also provides assistance to crime victims, in accordance with state law.

Streichman estimated that the legal department has averted about $220 million in legal payouts in the past decade.

Financial Services: $316,700

The department’s budget would decline by 25 percent from last year, despite the hiring of a new finance director. Last year, the town hired a finance manager, but then let him go at the end of his three-month probationary period. Even last year’s $424,000 budget remained far below the tally for the year before, which peaked at $596,000.

The finance department has proven particularly troubled in the past two years. The lack of monthly budget reports prompted the town council to spend some $3 million in reserve funds without realizing it two years ago, and underestimated the impact of the recession in the current fiscal year — leading to mid-year layoffs and the cancellation of almost all street improvements.

More recently, the council has received detailed monthly financial reports.

Galbraith pressed for the authority to hire a new finance manager, despite the continued recession — partly to avoid concentrating too much power in the hands of the town manager.

“We need a financial person to serve as a check and balance,” said Galbraith.

Galbraith noted that the previous town finance manager was let go at the end of his probation period and wasn’t therefore part of the layoffs.

“But the budget was so bleak, we just wanted to keep the money in the budget” by not immediately hiring a new financial officer.

IT Department: $406,000

The town’s IT department will increase only slightly this year, but included a long list of technology upgrades. However, the director noted the town probably won’t have the money for most of the projects. The state requires the council to set a maximum spending level, so the budget includes projects in the hope money will show up.

The biggest cost remains more than $200,000 to upgrade police computers, so that an officer in a squad car can use a laptop to run background checks, get updates on problems and get reports on the calls to a particular address.

Other proposed projects included $20,000 to replace outdated computers, $25,000 to archive town records, $20,000 to backup the operating system, $20,000 to improve security of the internet on the town system, $7,000 to for a video surveillance system, $4,000 so department heads can get onto the server from home or while traveling, $18,000 for a GIS system to provide an interactive map of the town, and $24,000 for a document management system.

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