Normal Town Council budget hearings are typically all day affairs in the city council chambers and represent one of the final steps in a process that begins several months earlier.
The tradition is sweatshirts, jeans, and coffee.
During the hearing, the council hears from each department head, sometimes more than once. Department heads discuss their budget highlights and answer questions.
It’s one of the most important activities of the year, and a day I personally enjoy.
This year, the staff is proud of the fact they were able to cut 170-some pages out of the document. Before the hearing, I complain privately to the Mayor that they made the type too small. He responds that the type isn’t any smaller, that my eyesight’s the problem.
I can’t argue with him.
This could be the first ever live blog of a Normal Town Council budget session. We’re getting a late start due to Channel 25 interviewing the City Manager.
As usual, the hearing begins with an overview from the Town’s finance director.
9:10 a.m. — Finance director Ron Hill’s budget presentation is called “Weathering the Storm.” Hill says the budget is really an investment in the future. “We’re plowing dollars into things today that are really going to help us in the future,” he says. Budget is challenging because we don’t know how deep the recession will be.
9:15 a.m. — We’re anticipating an end of the year general fund balance of $4.2 million, or about 9 percent of the general fund, below the target of 10 percent but an enviable situation compared to other cities.
9:18 a.m. — Our sales taxes are coming in slightly lower ($86,000 out of $14.6 million) than projected. The Town is projecting a 2 percent increase in sales tax in each of the next two years.
9:22 a.m. — Vehicle replacement, heavy trucks, those costs are going up dramatically. The recent salt purchase was an example of unbudgeted cost increases in the current fiscal year.
9:25 a.m. — “The purpose of reserves isn’t to have a bunch of money sitting around earning interest income, its to spend down when times are tough,” Hill said. In addition to spending down reserves, the budget strategy includes no new new positions and a delay in replacing others; postponing non-essential vehicle purchases; other cost initiatives; and some fee and tax revenue enhancements.
9:30 a.m. — “When you look at concerns you can sum it up in two words: the economy,” Hill said. But we have a strong local economy, excellent bond ratings (one step below AAA — all three rating agencies), conservative budget practices, good projected fund reserves. excellent health and dental fund reserves.
9:35 a.m. — We’re among the top 5% in the country in municipal bond ratings and that’s the kind of third party validation that demonstrates the Town is in excellent fiscal condition.
9:40 a.m. — Library director Brian Chase is here at his first budget session dressed in a suit. He didn’t get the casual memo. He is supported by five members of the library board. It’s great to see them.
9:41 a.m. — Parking remains an issue for the library staff. They are educating the public on the loss of 18 spots across College in the University Christian Church parking lot. Parking validation is working, in most cases. Chase says the library recognizes there is a lot of parking nearby and doing everything it can to encourage patrons to use the College Ave. parking deck. Library master planning is going well and many in the community have been involved in focus groups and surveys.
9:50 a.m. — The libarary board and council will meet next month to hear the preliminary results of the master planning. It’s no surprise, the library is operating “at a space deficit” and is doing everything it can to free up space where it can.
9:51 a.m.- Both library board chair Joan Steinberg and city manager Mark Peterson say the transition from one director to another has been smooth and that Brian Chase is “doing a super job.”
10 a.m. — Changes in the Town’s employee health insurance fund over the years have really put the fund in good position, along with recent positive claims history. Because of the excellent performance, the council approved two monthly premium holidays over the past year, saving employees and retirees with dependent health care and dental coverage about $900 each. That’s a pretty good local economic stimulus package! There’s clearly a benefit to staying healthy and making preventative lifestyle changes.
10:15 a.m. — Human Resources has created a leadership development program for non supervisors, the Town’s first significant attempt to create a foundation for stronger internal promotions. It involves helping potential future supervisors become more familiar with the organization, get them outside of their comfort zone, and introduce them to current supervisors and what they do.
10:20 a.m. — Town made a signficant investment in an Uptown wireless broadband network. Problem is that there’s not much traffic on it because the signal can’t be received inside buildings. We need to do a better job of communicating what businesses can do to install repeaters and strengthen the signal for the use of customers and employees. Glad to hear staff is working on that. Look for me to be outside — somewhere in Uptown–with a lap top when the weather warms up.
10:25 a.m. — Code enforcement responses increased this year about 3,000. Inspections department director Greg Troemmel says to expect another year of about 100 housing starts and a good solid year for commerical construction. One interesting note, the department received a permit application for what will be the biggest single family home in Normal — 6,700 square feet — at the Trails at Sunset Lakes. Lots of remodeling permits, 800 or so in the past year, demonstrating that in a down economy residents are putting money into their homes.
10:50 a.m. — Short break.
11 a.m. — Fire chief Jim Watson says this has been one of the toughest budget years for him. The Town has bumped up the replacement cost of fire equipment. Fire trucks and rescue vehicles are far more expensive these days. Unbelievable committment on the part of the firefighters to transition into paramedic service. That was a tremendous effort by all. It also meant about $300- to $400,000 more in overtime over the past two budget years. The overtime line will decrease significantly in the coming year.
11:15 a.m. — Proposed new revenue discussion — I’ll have more to say about these proposals in a subsequent post.
11:50 a.m. — Looks like the proposed $20 vehicle unlocking fee is dead. It’s a public relations service of the Normal Police Department. Officers like to do this. Sometimes cars are running or children are inside. Then there’s the messy problem of collection. There’s no council appetite for this one.
11:59 a.m. — The business license fee smells like a tax. It’s dead, too.
OKAY, here’s where I stopped live blogging. I did take notes for the rest of the budget hearing. Hey, at least I tried…