City faces budget deficit

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By Pat Hibbs

The problem is straightforward; the solution is going to be complex.

That was the message Finance Director Mark Schiefer delivered to the city council and department heads at a workshop about the fiscal year 2008-2009 budget.

The problem: according to Florida statute, the city must have a balanced budget by the end of September. At this point, after Schiefer has incorporated all of the directives given him by the council, the deficit is $309,067, based on a budget of nearly $13 million.

That deficit is actually higher than in the previous preliminary budget, because council has mandated a $1,000 one-time payment to each full-time general city employee (i.e., not a sworn police officer). No cost of living or merit salary increases have been included in the budget, and the one-time $1,000 payment will not affect the employees' base salaries. That payment is, of course, subject to collective bargaining with the employees' new union.

So, his figurative Finance Director hat clutched to his head, Schiefer presented a list of items that he had identified as negotiable, knowing that none of them would be popular.

He had to hold onto that hat many times during the meeting, often declaring "I'm just the finance guy," as he was forced into a devil's advocate role, though he clearly understands both sides of each question.

The proposed cuts would not have erased the deficit, but merely reduced it to $137,946, which would be taken from the city's reserves.

In the end, council rejected most of the suggested cuts. They did cut the allowance for the Chamber of Commerce to be cut to $5,000 from $8,000, reasoning that the city provides the chamber's offices and utilities.

They voted as well to commit nothing to the Central Florida Community Action Agency, although all agreed on its value to the community. Schiefer said that the agency had not made any requests in the last two years.

A $1,000 allotment to the Heart of Florida was also disallowed. Council had previously decided that, while membership in the organization would be valuable, this year of stringent budgets was not the appropriate time to join.

Assistant fire chief Shawn Holcomb and PIO Danny Wallace represented fire chief Danny Stegall. They were accompanied by six of the young volunteers who staff the department. They were there to rebut the proposal that paid weekend coverage be eliminated, resulting in a saving of almost $18,000.

Holcomb told council members that fire protection in the city of Williston was the least expensive per household of five like-size cities in the area. He also noted that fire and EMS response time had fallen from 12.4 minutes to 4.8 minutes since the department instituted paid daytime coverage.

He argued that paid weekend coverage is needed because the majority of the department staff is volunteers, who work during the week and deserve to have their weekend time except in case of emergency. In the past, Stegall has pointed out that the number of calls has grown exponentially over the last few years.

Schiefer suggested that the paid staff be trained to bill insurance companies for police response to accidents, a topic that has been debated - and rejected - several times. It may appear on a future agenda.

It was also suggested that council reconsider the fire assessment, which was voted down this year.

Council's decision to retain weekend coverage, combined with a discussion about police staffing, led to a more general debate about staffing in general.

Police Chief Dan Davis had requested that he be permitted to retain an employee who performs Information Technology duties, is a key member of the dispatch team, and is also a sworn officer. Assistant Chief Clay Connolly said that the dispatch department was "prickly," and might very well suffer a vacancy in the near future.

Council Vice President Mike Shoemaker suggested that the city consider a policy that staff reductions will be made by attrition, that employees who leave the city's employ will not be replaced "unless the need is critical."

Council members agreed that their primary concern is for the retention and welfare of current full-time employees. However, they acceded to Schiefer's repeated warning that "you can't spend more than you take in" and decided to place a moratorium on new hiring beginning on Oct. 1, the beginning of the new budget year.

A new patrol vehicle was left in the budget, as were the fireworks for the Independence Day celebration. Although the cost of the fireworks is about $13,000, council members agreed that the July 3 celebration is a signature event for Williston and ought to be left as is. Connolly suggested charging $1 per person for the festivities. Council president Debra Jones argued that a voluntary $2 donation is already asked for parking, although the proceeds go the organization doing the parking, not to the city.

Councilman Steve Holcomb once again suggested that council members forgo their salaries (a saving of about $17,000). Although Jones agreed that she'd rather do that than cancel the fireworks, the idea never gained any traction.

So Schiefer was left with little comfort from the council, and the city faces another year of deficit spending.

At the first "official" meeting to approve the budget, held on Tuesday evening, Schiefer presented a budget of $13,462,346. It had been balanced by making the few revisions approved by council and by adding $297,645 from retained earnings, or the city's reserves. At this point, that fund contains $1,558,972, according to Schiefer.

The budget is based on the rollback millage rate of 5.9025, which council also officially approved. Councilman Steve Holcomb dissented because he thought that a 6.0 millage rate, which had been advertised to the public, should have been used. Schiefer said that the 6.0 rate would have yielded less than $1,000 in ad valorem tax revenue. Council President Debra Jones added that Schiefer had recommended the rollback rate early in the budget process, and had been using it as the basis of all budget projections.

Holcomb also dissented in the vote on the budget, saying later that he did so because he objected to the "13th" police officer, the IT specialist / Dispatcher who also happens to be a sworn officer.

The meeting for council finally to approve the budget will be held on Monday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m. in the council chambers.