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Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 12:07 am

Drizzling but not pouring

City dips into rainy day fund to balance budget

 Rejecting Mayor Jim Langfelder’s calls for tax increases, the Springfield City Council on Tuesday voted to dip into reserves to plug holes in a city budget battered by sagging tax revenue.

The 8-2 vote came four days after the mayor sent an email to aldermen, warning that the city library would close on Sundays, the police department would lose nine officers and curtail the fledgling body camera program while the fire department would lay off eight firefighters and 10 trainees if departments had to cut spending by 3 percent. Aldermen weren’t persuaded.

“I think it’s just saber rattling, to be honest with you,” Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer said before Tuesday’s meeting, when the mayor found not a single vote in favor of tax hikes. “You going to make it the worst cuts you can possibly do. Obviously, with police and fire, it raises the ire of the people.”

Langfelder made his case for increasing the sales tax and telecommunications tax while instituting a new tax on natural gas, talking about a “basic structural imbalance” in municipal finances and warning that pension costs in a year will consume all of the city’s share of the property tax and start eating into other revenue. But aldermen remained silent when Langfelder asked for a motion to reconsider prior rejections of his tax proposals.

In the end, no cuts were made to existing personnel, although the budget calls for a three-month delay in hiring to fill vacancies. The biggest salve to lackluster tax revenue was a $3.4 million transfer from reserves to the operating fund, which would leave the city with more than $15.5 million, or nearly 13 percent of the budget, in reserves.

The council transferred $750,000 from an infrastructure fund to pay operating expenses, with aldermen saying that the money, which had been planned for roof repairs to city hall, can be replaced with tax-increment financing funds. The need, according to aldermen and budget director Bill McCarty, is dire, with the roof leaking to the point that buckets are needed to catch drips in rainy weather. McCarty said that leaks have contributed to exterior portions of walls coming loose.

“This is a problem that’s been long overdue,” McCarty said. “We all have seen what’s going on at the fairgrounds. It’s not something we wish to emulate.”

Langfelder said he’s against using TIF money to fix the roof at city hall.

“I’ve been criticized and now you’re going down the same path,” said the mayor, alluding to his recently abandoned proposal to use TIF money to buy a building near the Old State Capitol. The plan was blasted by opponents who said that TIF money should be used for projects that generate economic development and increase the downtown tax base.

The fund transfer triggered a “no” vote from Ward 8 Ald. Kris Theilen, who said that he’d promised that the fund wouldn’t be raided when he voted for a sales-tax increase in 2013 to fund improvements to roads and other infrastructure improvements.

“I cannot break my word to my constituents,” Theilen said. “This is not a declaration of war. This is not getting into a pissing match with any of you.”

Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin, the only other “no” vote, said he couldn’t support a budget that didn’t include a wage freeze. The alderman, who has long argued that the city needs to freeze salaries to control escalating pension costs, said that he would have supported a sales-tax increase in exchange for a hard freeze on pay for city workers.

Ward 3 Ald. Doris Turner said that compromise is necessary.

“No one is going to agree with everything that’s in this budget,” Turner said. “I’m going along with it because it’s the best thing for the city.”

Afterward, Langfelder said that the city could feel the pinch even harder if the state doesn’t pass a budget. The budget impasse, he said, has contributed to an economic downturn that has left the city short on tax revenue, and if the governor and legislature don’t pass a budget this spring, the odds are long that they’ll do it as the 2018 gubernatorial election nears. Still, he said that he’s an optimist.

“The city of Springfield is very resilient,” Langfelder said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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