City of Helena officials say expense cuts will be necessary to balance the city's budget over the next two years.
The first draft of Helena's city budget for the coming biennium was approved Monday, projecting $22.4 million for the city to spend from the general fund in FY 2020, about $400,000 less than the year before. The general fund covers government operations, the Helena fire and police departments, community development, public works, parks and recreation and administrative services.
City Manager Ana Cortez told commissioners the cuts — intended to reach a balanced general fund — focused on saving for the future while providing municipal services that are “responsive, impactful, predictable and adaptive.” In addition to the document approved Monday, Cortez noted that a 21% general fund reserve of about $4.7 million to cover emergencies is on the way and will be included in June’s final budget.
“I must also recognize the commitment of the city’s leadership … who together provided light where the numbers placed us in a pretty dark tunnel,” Cortez said. “Thanks to their creativity and selflessness, the tunnel was actually pretty short.”
In a letter introducing the budget, Cortez wrote that "structural problems" led to recent deficits and added that more than $1 million in cuts will be required to balance the city general fund in the next two fiscal years.
Cortez noted in the letter that budget amendments to accommodate real estate sales, development of the new Law and Justice Center and union negotiations should be expected because for the first time the budget is being set for the next two years instead of one.
The budget calls for a net increase in city employment, despite a smaller general fund, from the current 335 full-time equivalent positions to about 353 in FY 2020, additions which Cortez said were made only for very specific purposes. The city public works department stands to gain the most with a proposed addition of 13 full-time positions through enterprise funding, including five street operators, two solid waste operators, a mechanic for the city water plant and a second code enforcement officer.
The budget also proposes that the public works department’s share of all city expenditures rise from 52% in the coming fiscal year to 57% in FY 2021, when the department’s total budget, general fund and otherwise, is projected to increase sharply to $56.3 million.
The preliminary figure of $7.5 million in general funding for police and court expenditures includes the hiring of two new officers but accounts for a $62,000 cut from the projected FY 2019 figure. For the Helena Fire Department, the preliminary figure of $4.9 million in general fund expenses in FY 2020 is about $220,000 less than the year before and accompanied by the removal of two full-time staff positions. Cortez said Monday the city had identified and eliminated one vacant position within the fire department.
That cut follows last year’s hiring of six new firefighters after city voters approved a levy to supplement the department’s annual budget by $900,000. The levy was partially offset by an $800,000 FEMA grant awarded in August. HFD will recover $140,000 from the general fund in FY 2021, with a full-time position added back, if the preliminary budget stands.
To help save money, police and fire officials agreed to keep their interim chiefs in place for the next year, according to an interview Cortez gave KTVH. Helena Police Chief Troy McGee stepped down after 43 years on the force and almost 23 as chief in March. Fire Chief Mark Emert departed only two weeks later.
A city fee schedule won’t be adopted until the fall, with Cortez citing the workload of a biennial budget for the delay. In previous budget talks, the city discussed increases to the open lands and urban forestry assessments and those funding street maintenance and storm water drainage.
Monday’s budget proposes a 65% increase in urban forestry revenue to $431,000 for each of the next two fiscal years.
Raises for city employees also were not included. Cortez said last week that she was directed by the city commission to consider applying a percentage salary change to be negotiated by the Helena Police Protective Association to all city employees except directors and managers. No timeline for those negotiations was provided; Cortez said last week that the union had only requested them.
A Monday press release from Cortez’s office encouraged anyone with questions to reach out via email at email@example.com.