Helena's city commissioners are facing a preliminary budget that calls for spending $4.7 million less than what was budgeted for the current fiscal year. 

A seven-hour budget meeting on spending for the upcoming fiscal year is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. Tuesday, May 23, at the Helena Civic Center. 

Adoption of the budget is slated for the commission’s June 26 meeting that begins at 6 p.m. in the commission chambers on the third floor of the City-County Building.

The preliminary budget calls for spending $84,845,644 on revenues of $78,953,470 for the next fiscal year, which begins June 1. Revenues are projected to be $1.3 million more than what was budgeted for the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

While spending that exceeds revenue can be a cause for concern, the city saves toward large expenditures that it’s planning on making.

When the time comes to make those purchases from the city’s comprehensive capital improvement fund, where funds are set aside for scheduled replacement of city equipment, the fund is tapped for those purchases.

Sometimes equipment lasts longer than anticipated, so a planned expenditure isn’t made. And sometimes spending for improvements to facilities isn’t completed within the fiscal year, so the money is re-allocated in the next fiscal year.

“Departments rarely spend what’s budgeted in their departments,” City Manager Ron Alles said.

Yet another variable in annual spending can be expenditures, such as the $1.8 million for renovating and expanding the pro-shop at Bill Roberts Golf Course, that develop in the months leading up to the budget.

While the preliminary budget has money for the pro-shop improvements, revenue for repayment of the bonds that will finance the work won’t come from city taxpayers but instead golfers and others who use the facility, Alles said.

Adding two golf simulators, so there are a total of three available, will help the facility stay busy during the wintry months, he added.

But before this project moves beyond its design, a contractor will have to be selected to work with the architect to ensure construction won’t exceed the projected cost.

Overall, Alles is pleased with the budget and said it’s in good shape.

“We are at least maintaining the level of service we had last year and years past,” he said.

Improvements to city infrastructure, such as the more than $10.6 million for the municipal water system, gives Alles cause to say the city is adding to what it provides to residents.

“To invest $10 million in your water infrastructure is pretty significant," he said. 

The proposed spending plan also calls for $3.75 million in wastewater system work.

Clarke Street, which extends from Benton to Harrison avenues and through a part of old Helena, with nearly $734,000 of repairs, is included in the preliminary spending plan. Repairing Hamilton, from Ming Place to Clarke Street, is figured at more than $247,000.

Alles noted that improvements to Front Street are budged at $1 million.

The city is proposing a 2.5 percent cost-of-living adjustment for its staff, which amounts to about $500,000, Alles said, adding that a third of that is due to collective bargaining contracts.

There has not been an across-the-board cost-of-living increase in city wages in the last two years, and the year prior to that saw a 1 percent raise, he said.

Alleshas sought for city wages to be the median among Montana seven largest cities. In the last two years, some employees have received a “market adjustment” to their wages to bring them back into the median, he added.

Included in Alles’ letter that accompanies the document is $185,000 for four police vehicles and $140,880 for police and fire department radios.

Police operations account for more than $6.1 million of the preliminary spending plan, while more than $4.3 million will go toward the fire department.

The number of employees, as measured by full-time equivalent, increases from the current 312 to 317, Alles said.

Among those filling out the increase are two positions for dispatchers, a three-quarters-time position for trail maintenance, and a one-fourth-time position to review building plans.

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