City faces budget hole
Barack Obama had been president for barely a year the last time the city of Springfield faced a budget crunch as serious as the one now facing the mayor and city council.
With a $17 million gap to fill and no appetite for tax increases, the city council in 2010 slashed budgets for the police, fire and public works departments, which together consume the lion’s share of the corporate fund. Cuts in the fire department were deep enough that the city temporarily closed fire stations on a rotating basis.
Since then, the police and fire departments have bounced back, at least in terms of dollars. The police department’s budget has increased by $9 million, or roughly 25 percent, since 2010. The fire department also has recovered, growing by $8.2 million, also roughly 25 percent, during the same time frame, when the city’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, fell by .06 percent.
Public works has been a different story. Mayor Jim Langfelder, who says the city has an $11.5 million budget gap, has called for $15.8 million in corporate fund money to be spent on public works, a decrease of nearly $700,000 from the budget ordinance that passed the council last year. It’s also down from the budget package that passed in 2010, when more than $16.5 million in public works was covered by the corporate fund. William McCarty, city budget director, said that the public works department would have 125 positions under the mayor’s proposal for the coming budget year. The budget that passed in 2010, he said, had money for 158 positions.
Langfelder is calling for a tax increase. But aldermen, who last year rejected proposed tax hikes, are questioning whether more cuts can be accomplished.
“We’ve got to cut,” Ward 10 Ald. Ralph Hanauer said during a Monday budget meeting when police chief Kenny Winslow told the council that he wants to create a new assistant chief position. “Why do we need it? … It seems to me it’s political payback or something. There’s some funny business.”
Ward 2 Ald. Herman Senor was less forceful, but no less straightforward. “If we ask the general public to raise their taxes, we have to give something back,” Senor told the chief, whose overall budget would drop by slightly more than 1 percent under the mayor’s spending plan.
Employment in the police and fire departments has fallen over the years, but not as steeply as in the public works department, according to city budget documents and McCarty, who says pension obligations for police officers and firefighters account for much of the budget increases in those departments over the years.
The fire department would lose four firefighters under the mayor’s budget, which provides for 214 positions. The department had 234 positions in 2010, McCarty says – it amounts to a 9 percent drop in eight years. The police department next year would maintain the number of officers at 249, but would lose five non-sworn positions. The police department would have 281 positions, down 13 percent from the number of positions budgeted in 2010. Meanwhile, the number of budgeted public works positions has fallen by 30 percent since 2010, according to McCarty and city budget documents.
McCarty says the mayor’s budget spares no one.“We did not leave any department unscathed,” the budget director said.
Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin said that his constituents are telling him they’d favor deeper cuts to the fire department than the police department, but fire chief Barry Helmerichs told aldermen there’s no fat in his shop. “We’ve cut everything we can,” the chief said.
The mayor is asking for a 5.62 percent increase to the fire department’s budget over last year, but that money, Helmerichs said, would go toward paying years worth of wage increases for firefighters, who have gone two years without a raise pending the negotiation of a new union contract. Helmerichs said the department contemplated a 10 percent cut, but that would require laying off 25 firefighters and reducing the number of fire engines by two. Langfelder said that’s not acceptable.
“If an alderman wants to close a fire station in their ward, please let us know,” Langfelder offered.
Afterward, McMenamin said he counts 22 unfilled positions in city government that are contained in the current budget. “I think we need to shave the budget by that amount,” McMenamin said. “I think there’s some other areas in the budget that can be shaved that we have not gotten to yet.”
McMenamin said he’s asked the mayor for a list of city jobs, as well as job descriptions, that are in the current budget but are unfilled. He said he also wants to know opening and closing amounts contained in city funds for the past year. The city, he says, also needs to consider slowing down wage increases for longtime city employees who are enrolled in more generous pension plans than employees hired in recent years.
“We need structural change,” said McMenamin, who has long called for wage freezes to help rein in pension costs. “Otherwise, we’re just going to keep raising the sales tax forever.”
But McMenamin allowed that the time and political winds might not be right.
“I think the situation needs to get worse before the necessity for a wage freeze catches on,” the alderman said. “Possibly, we need a city council membership with a long-term vision for finances.”