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2013-08-22

City's budget balanced, no tax hike

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

Faced with a possible $312,000 deficit during fiscal year 2013-2014, Bandera City Council has been involved in a series of "special-called meetings of a thousand cuts" - aka budget workshops.

On Wednesday, August 13, they managed to whittle the deficit down to a manageable amount after pinpointing chunks of money that could be used to augment the coming budget. Apparently about $60,000 had been identified as having been carried over from the 2011-2012 budget. Money had also been saved in capital outlay due to the former police department's reduction in force. Approximately $120,000 was identified as unspent from the current budget. Once those chunks of moola were returned to their possibly rightful places in the budget, council's tightened belts could be eased a bit. This would still leave $1.9 million in cash reserves.

$1.9 million ether

During a discussion on Tuesday, August 12, both Councilmen Maggie Schumacher and Binky Archer suggested carrying over funds unspent in the current fiscal year to next year's budget rather than relegating them to cash reserves, where they would vanish into the nearly $2 million ether. "One example is the code enforcement salary that was allocated, but not used," Schumacher said. "It would be sensible to put it in next year's budget."

Concurring, Archer said, "If we have money carried over, why not use it?"
Mayor Pro Tem John Hegemier felt that fiscal philosophy would eventually lead the city into impoverishment. "This is still a budget deficit that will remain a budget deficit," he said. "The biggest cause of the deficit is salaries and that isn't a one-time expense.

Walking a middle line, Mayor Don Clark added, "I have no problem bringing funds forward, but not dipping into cash reserves."
"We won't be going into cash reserves," said Councilman Brandi Morgan, "We'll just be using what we have leftover from last year." She went on to decry cutting "more and more from the budget and providing less and less services to city residents."

Schumacher pointed out that development on the north end of Main Street would help generate additional revenue for the city. "A renovated Cabaret, the newly reopened Old Forge and a new hotel will be major sources of revenue," she said.

Taking an opposite tack, Councilman Jim Hannah cautioned his colleagues not to gamble with cash not yet in the city coffers. "Let's not dig ourselves deeper into a hole with public money," he said.

"We're charged with using public money reasonably," Schumacher countered, "and getting a 0.4 percent interest is not a wise use of public money."

To-may-toe v. to-mah-toe

However, the question of whether carrying over unspent amounts to next year's budget is the equivalent to actually taking money out of cash reserves was never really answered. As one veteran of budgets and their various crises - who is not a member of the city administration - pointed out, "If you use fund balance to pay for recurring costs, such as salaries, down the road it's going to bite you. At some point in time, to sustain the expenditure, you'll have to raise taxes." Later, council tacitly agreed that might have to occur next year.

After more discussion, it was determined that some of the unspent funds would be used to give city employees nominal pay raises with the unused portion relegated to fattening the already-banked $1.9 million.

Taking exception to Hannah's statement, "Wish lists for public servants can't go on forever," Schumacher said, "This is only the second year we've done a budget in this manner. In the past, we've never had any discussion at all. And, this is the first time department heads were asked what they wanted in next year's budget. This is a sensible use for part of the money we haven't spent this year. We will still have significant funds in the cash reserves." She also pointed out the tax rate would stay the same as last year.

Safety or Big Brother?

Minor adjustments were made to the budget last Wednesday, the most amusing being the removal of $4,500 earmarked for installing GPS tracking in all 10 city vehicles.

"Is there a reason for this?" Archer asked Clark who had championed the item.

Clark described the GPS devices as a safety and money-saving measure, necessary because of the city contract to maintain the Flying L PUD water system. "We can keep up with locations of all vehicles and pull them up on a computer," he said.

When it was pointed out employees could be tracked using city-issued cell phones, Clark hastily explained, "We're not looking to watch the employees. If you control vehicles, you can cut down on wasted time and wear and tear on the vehicles. It's not expensive and UPS uses them."

Hannah noted that the tracking devices could also be used "as a defense as well as a guide." He added, "In my experience things can get loose."

Not buying either argument, Morgan said that working adults should be trusted to go from "... point A to point B. Department heads know where their workers are going and any concerns need to be brought to our attention." She described the GPA monitors as "going overboard and frivolous."

Bandera resident Rilla Stephens indicated that, in her belief, the GPS were needed because of lack of employee management. Many perceived her words as a slam against City Administrator Mike Cardenas, who also serves as public works director. A subsequent heated exchanged supported that theory.

"If we can't trust the employees, they don't need to be here," Cardenas countered. "If you think someone's not doing what needs to be done, come see me." Then, in an apparent abrupt about face regarding the GPS devices, Cardenas said, "I'm not for this."

"I believe in Mike and (City Marshal) Charlie's (Hicks) professionalism and commend them for raising the standards," Schumacher said, joining Archer and Morgan against the GPS budget item. Since only Hannah and Hegemier favored the trackers, Clark removed the $4,500 item from the budget.

Other considerations

In the city marshal's budget, Chief Deputy Scott MacNaughton's hours will increase to 30 hours a week with benefits; Deputy Earl Heidelberg's hours will increase to 42 per week; and Deputy Will Dietrich will receive $1,000 master peace officer's certification pay in this budget cycle.

Archer went on the record with her continued support of hiring another deputy marshal. However, in 2011, Archer supported the reduction in force for the former police force, noting at the time, "The sheriff's office has always had officers assigned to the city and the response time is the same."