City wrestling with tight budget plan

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BELOIT - As city councilors near a vote on a new budget for next year, high-ranking city staff are leading them through a tough fiscal landscape.

Budgetary constraints set by state lawmakers and city staffing levels contrasted with available funding were key themes Monday during a day-long workshop to understand the city's 2018 budget proposal.

Department heads said they were generally pleased with how the discussions went Monday, but acknowledge challenges posed by tight revenues and the difficulty of hiring and retaining staff as issues facing the city.

The proposed total budget of $106 million will be voted on by councilors next month, and is set to include nearly $31 million in its general fund with a total capital improvement budget of $21.49 million.

Over 80 percent of the city's general fund, $24.85 million, will go towards wages and benefits for city staff, with 342 positions budgeted for next year. The city won't be making any large-scale hiring changes, set to bring on only one new full-time director of communications position in City Manager Lori Curtis Luther's office.

"We have great, committed staff," Luther said. "We're just very limited for what we can do."

Luther pointed to the state's tax levy limits as a major problem for all Wisconsin municipalities struggling with tight budgets. The city is set to collect $9.17 million in property tax revenue in 2018, up just $322,008 from last year. The number is restricted in part by the city's rate of net new construction dropping from over 2 percent to under 1 percent, according to city data.

"Cities are just getting hit disproportionately harder than the rest of the state's business community," Luther added.

• Public safety

Both the Beloit police and fire departments are in collective bargaining negotiations. Both departments are the most scrutinized in terms of staffing changes.

The city is proposing modest cuts to both departments, with $11.5 million proposed to be designated for the Beloit Police Department (BPD) and $7.6 million proposed to the Beloit Fire Department. Cuts from both departments total $66,965, according to preliminary city budget information.

Of the 91 positions in the Beloit Police Department, 73 are sworn personnel with 44 designated for the BPD patrol division. Since 2011, the department has lost five full-time positions.

Of the 72 positions in the Beloit Fire Department, 61 are sworn, with 20 designated as firefighter-paramedics, with 9 additional paramedics and firefighter-EMTs. In total, the department is expecting 7 vacancies next year, mostly from retirements. Three positions will go unfilled due to a federal grant expiring, with the city unable to reapply for the SAFER grant due to funding match requirements and other changes to the process, officials said.

• Public Works/Parks and Leisure Services

Both departments are in a state of flux heading into 2018, with interim directors being named to both top positions in the divisions. Recruitment for a permanent Public Works director has started, with recruiting costs set to carry over into next year's budget. Both the director of operations and director of Parks & Leisure Services positions will be evaluated as part of the shuffle. Officials said Monday no specifics had been decided upon, but noted both positions are under review. No timeline has been established for addressing the open positions.

• Health insurance

The city is set to increase its employee health insurance premium contribution rate for all non-union employees to 5 percent, in an effort to begin to chip away at outstanding insurance payment obligations, currently at $1.6 million. Councilor Mark Preuschl suggested the city review possible increases for employees, but any revenue contribution would go into the city's health insurance fund rather than the city's general fund.

A public hearing on the 2018 budget is set for the 7 p.m. at the Oct. 16 council meeting.

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