3/28/08

AFSCME unprepared for K.C. dues hit

Get ready for higher downtown parking fees, fewer events at Kemper Arena, fewer bulky item pickups and the first substantial city government layoffs in decades. The Kansas City Council voted 12-1 Thursday on a budget that forces those changes as well as reductions to police, the zoo and other programs. Council members said the plan made difficult cuts while trying to avoid the most draconian proposals.

“We have reached a good compromise, listening to everybody’s concerns,” Councilwoman Jan Marcason said.

This has been one of the most difficult budgets in years because of the slowing economy and the chronic imbalance between the city’s costs and the revenues to meet its needs.

The overall budget, which takes effect May 1, is $1.3 billion. The council increased funding from initial proposals for items such as snow removal, fuel costs, health insurance and workers’ compensation. But it had to pare back other areas, sometimes severely.

In the end, the $442 million general fund, which covers the city’s basic operations, suffered net cuts of almost $13 million.

Budget officials said 245 positions will be frozen, at a savings of $9.8 million. The budget also cuts 187 positions to save about $7 million, which city officials said make layoffs “a virtual certainty.” Budget Officer Troy Schulte said he thought the number of actual employees affected would be fewer than 100, which would still be the largest layoff from the city government since the early 1980s.

City Manager Wayne Cauthen said he would do everything to minimize layoffs by shifting workers to other positions, including to departments not covered by the general fund. He said he would ask the council to approve severance packages and career counseling and hoped area governments and companies would hire some of the affected workers.

He said he wouldn’t know the specifics for probably two or three months.

Robert Patrick, president of Local 500 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said members of Kansas City’s largest municipal union are nervous because they haven’t been given any solid information. He worried about the effect on city services.

“We’re citizens too, and we don’t want to see the services go down,” he said. “How do we keep citizen satisfaction moving forward?”

Councilman John Sharp, the lone dissenter in the budget vote, said he too feared that cuts and resulting layoffs would adversely affect citizens.

“I can’t support it,” Sharp said. “I’m concerned about our ability to deliver services.”

Sharp was upset that the budget provides only $155,000 of the $425,000 needed to start a program to go after bad landlords and problem housing properties. He reminded his colleagues that they recently approved that program after years of urging by neighborhood leaders.

Sharp also said the Police Department was taking a nearly $5 million hit in required consolidations and cuts to hiring and overtime.

“It will directly affect the number of cops on the street,” Sharp said.

Police Chief Jim Corwin said it looked like he wouldn’t be able to hire any additional officers this year, and he’s concerned that the consolidations won’t yield the required amount of savings.

The city budget has generated considerable public discussion ever since Mayor Mark Funkhouser suggested earlier this month that the city should focus on priorities like streets and police and think about ending the $4.6 million subsidy for the zoo.

The budget approved Thursday backed away from that severe cut but did reduce the zoo’s subsidy by $600,000. The zoo had to share in the cuts, especially with some city employees losing their jobs, Councilwoman Deb Hermann said.

Zoo Director Randy Wisthoff had said Wednesday that he thought that might force the zoo to close the African forest section and ship out four gorillas there. On Thursday, he said he hopes to avoid that.

“The last thing I want to do is send any animals out of the zoo,” he said.

Wisthoff said the zoo would have to increase its gate fee and look at other ways to raise revenue and contain costs. He said conversations need to start with city officials to avoid future cuts that could jeopardize the zoo.

The budget also affects Kemper Arena, which will see its subsidy slashed, resulting in fewer events at the aging facility. And parking meter and city garage fees will go up by as much as 35 percent, which will raise an additional $850,000, city officials said.

Thursday’s council vote followed weeks of raucous debate involving council members and the public. The final compromise resulted when council members agreed on how much money to put into the city’s badly depleted “rainy day” reserve fund. The reserve fund should be bolstered from $20 million to about $32.7 million, or 7.4 percent of the general fund, close to the target of 8 percent.

Council members think that will go a long way toward satisfying concerns about the city’s creditworthiness, which affects the amount the city pays on its borrowing for major projects.

The budget debate also featured philosophical differences over how quickly city government needed to rectify the imbalance between revenues and expenses.

Funkhouser and other budget hawks on the council argued they should try to solve the problem this year, while others, including Cauthen, said the program cuts and work force reductions should be spread out over three years. Rainy day reserves would have been 6 percent the first year.

Council members said the final budget reached a middle ground.

Funkhouser, who watched numerous councils craft budgets during his 18 years as city auditor, said he was most impressed by how engaged the council and the public were in this year’s budget negotiations.

“People are talking reality now,” he said. “They’re taking finance seriously.”

But Schulte warned that the tough times aren’t over.

“The work is not done,” he said. “We’ve got a bigger problem in 2009-2010. We’ve got more cuts to make.”

Key budget cuts
• Staff, about $17 million. Would freeze 245 vacant positions and eliminate 187. Layoff numbers not yet known, but likely to be less than 100. Severance packages likely.

• Police, nearly $5 million. The department won’t be able to hire additional officers and will need to make other cuts, such as eliminating mounted police.

• The Kansas City Zoo, $600,000. Zoo officials said they probably would have to raise fees but would try not to get rid of animals. A zoo officials’ convention may pull out.

• Kemper Arena, $369,000. Would mean fewer events. AEG, which manages the Sprint Center, will continue to manage Kemper, but with reduced costs.

Several more cuts in KC’s new budget

• Landlord licensing, $275,000. Reduces funding for monitoring landlords and housing properties by two-thirds. Opponents of the cut say that hurts a fledgling program promised to neighborhoods last year.

• Boulevard maintenance, $600,000. Could lead to more weeds along the boulevards.

• Bulky item collection, $350,000. Would eliminate regular routes, and residents would have to make appointments to have items picked up.

• Municipal Corrections Institution, $300,000. Should not require layoffs, officials there said.

• Two youth initiatives, $200,000. Would end a college prep program that started just last year and a planned after-school program.

• Fleet maintenance, $1.5 million. Would slow fleet upgrades and equipment replacement.

• The mayor’s budget, $80,000. Each council member would see $10,000 cut from his or her budget for a total savings of $120,000.

• The International Office, $550,000. Would lose four positions.

• Travel budget and consultants, $300,000.

(kansascity.com)

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