Star Valley’s four budgetary workhorses need a feed bag of speeding tourists, with the town projecting another drop in photo enforcement revenue in next year’s fiscal budget.
Fortunately for the town’s bottom line, Star Valley still expects to bank nearly $900,000 from the four cameras fixed at opposite ends of town. However, ticket revenue has dropped by 23 percent since Star Valley installed the cameras in 2008.
Ticket revenue is not the only thing decreasing. City sales tax is also expected to continue its downward spiral. Although neighboring Payson this year saw a heartening rise in sales tax revenue, the numbers show that Star Valley’s businesses continue to struggle.
In fact, local sales tax has declined an average of $48,000 a year for the last five years.
However, the council expressed little concern about the continued drop in sales tax, which makes up just 13 percent of its budget. In neighboring Payson, sales taxes account for half of all revenues. By contrast in Star Valley, photo enforcement fines account for half its revenue.
Camera revenue has helped the town fund a number of capital improvement projects and grow a rainy day fund to $1.2 million. The council recently took half of that reserve fund to help buy the local water company.
The $775,000 purchase of the water system was the largest expenditure the town made last year. The council decided to buy the system with one lump payment, keeping the town’s debt-free streak going another year.
On average, the town grosses $34,000 a month. Most of that money goes into savings. What’s more, the town only spent 56 percent of what it had budgeted this year.
Town finance administrator Chancy Nutt said the town has to budget for unexpected expenditures, such as attorney fees and emergencies. Luckily, no financial emergencies arose.
“Just because we didn’t expend it didn’t mean that we budgeted carelessly. It means that we didn’t have any of those events,” she said.
The town enters next year’s budget anticipating a nearly $20,00 increase in general fund revenues.
“Fat and happy,” said Councilor George Binney on the town’s budget.
Town Manager Tim Grier said he is proud town staff designed a budget last year that successfully forecasted revenues — and happy the town spent less than predicted.
“We were right on the money so to speak with predicting 101 percent of revenue that we thought was going to come in,” he said.
Although expenditures came in low, Grier praised the council for its fiscal responsibility. Grier said the council should be proud to report it is one of the few towns not struggling.
“Our goal is to have a strong budget so we an provide services,” he said.
Some residents have criticized Star Valley for not doing enough for residents and local businesses, especially with the town’s fat bankroll. The completely separate Hellsgate Fire Department provides fire protection with a hefty property tax rate and Star Valley contracts with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office for police protection. The just purchased water company serves about 10 percent of town residents and most of the town’s residents rely on septic systems for sewage treatment and private wells for water.
Grier defended the town’s work and listed 29 completed projects.
Those included paving most of the town’s roads, supporting the Meals on Wheels and Senior Ridership programs, giving the Gila County Mounted Posse $5,000 for GPS units, buying the water company, remodeling town hall and designing an emergency evacuation plan, among other things.
Law enforcement and animal control services are the same ones the county provided when the area was unincorporated.
Grier said he is most proud of the council’s sense of community and ability to manage funds wisely.
“We are debt free,” he said. “Many times governments can brag about what they have been able to provide, but what seems hidden in the shadows is the debt they had to incur and what toll that will take on future generations.”
The council took a first look at next year’s tentative budget May 15.
Town staff is budgeting for a $1.8 million unallocated contingency fund.
Grier said that money will be available for town projects.
Last year, Grier had each town commission submit a wish list. The council then allocated money for streets and roads, water and sewer and others.
This year, Grier said he has changed his budgeting philosophy.
“This coming budget we are proposing we put more money in contingency funds rather than line items,” he said. “We have learned that a better budget is not to put into specific funds and then restrict money.”
Buying the water company is the main reason for this change.
The town knows the system needs a lot of work and emergencies might require expensive repairs.
If the money is tied up in a rainy day fund or some other account, staff may have a hard time making repairs, he said.
While putting money in a contingency fund represents a shift in the town’s budget practice, it does not mean the town will spend recklessly, Grier said.
“I have always been fiscally conservative and these are good times to be conservative.”
As long as the town keeps at least $2.4 million in the bank, services and projects can go forward.
“We need to keep it at this level to provide services at the same levels we have in the past. My recommendation is to continue on a conservative fiscal path.”