Friday, December 20, 2013

TOP STORY >> Budget passed by city for 2014

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville City Council on Thursday voted 9-1 to approve a $22 million budget for 2014.

Alderman Mike Traylor voted against the measure because he thought there was a discrepancy in salaries for parks employees and firefighters.

“I appreciate that everybody’s put a lot of hard work into it, but I just don’t feel like we’re quite there yet. I want to look at more things,” Traylor said.

The alderman asked why Parks and Recreation salaries were up $113,000. He acknowledged that $62,000 of the increase is budgeted for two full-time employees who will be hired for the $3 million Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation 160-acre sport-shooting and archery range that is under construction at Graham and Loop roads.

“That’s halfway to getting our longevity pay back if it’s wrong,” Traylor said about the perceived discrepancy.

Human resources director Jill Ross explained in a Friday interview with The Leader that Traylor was looking at an amended 2013 budget, which is based on money the city spent instead of projected expenditures.

The amended 2013 budget was smaller — increasing the gap between it and the 2014 budget — than the projected budget for 2013 because both departments had vacancies open up throughout the year that weren’t filled immediately, she said.

The 2014 budget must include funding for every position and be based on projected expenditures, Ross explained. That is why it should be compared to the larger 2013 budget.

Finance director Cheryl Erkel said the $107,000 increase in the fire department’s salaries is for promotions.

Parks director Kevin House told the council that the only increase he knew of in his department’s salaries is for the shooting range staff.

He said after the meeting that the plan is to hire a full-time manager and one other full-time employee for the range. The rest of the staff will work part time, and the city doesn’t know yet how many part-time positions will be needed, House said.

Alderman Terry Sansing said, “This budget has been hashed back and forth for three months. We knew it was a tight budget going into this. We have a balanced budget. The only way to cut into this budget any further would be to lay people off. We do not, we are not, giving people raises, but we are not laying anybody off. Let’s get this budget done. I urge that we go ahead and take care of business tonight.”

Aldermen James Bolden said, “My main concern is that we go over the end of the year without a budget…The city is standing in limbo if we don’t pass a budget.”

State law requires that Jacksonville pass a 2014 budget by Feb. 1.

Sansing pointed out that the council can amend the budget and usually does amend it three to four times a year. Mayor Gary Fletcher agreed, calling the budget a “working document.”

The 2014 budget includes $40,000 in revenue from an increase in the sales tax on alcoholic beverages and more than $157,000 in cuts to employee benefits.

The tax was recently increased to 10 percent of a business’ gross profits, the same rate several surrounding cities have, according to the mayor.

The 2014 budget does not include cost-of-living or annual raises for city employees. The cuts were a $20,246 clothing allowance, $20,000 in tuition reimbursement, $88,000 in longevity pay and $28,800 in degree-incentive pay.

The employee portion of health insurance will also increase from $0 to $72 for individuals and from $115 to $150 for families.

But there will be no furloughs or layoffs, officials emphasized.

And Jacksonville won’t fill six positions that will be open after the beginning of the year.

Fletcher said previously that the positions are across the city.

He has blamed the tight budget on the city’s loss of $1 million in federal turnback revenue, which happened when the 2010 census — certified in 2011 — showed Jacksonville had lost about 1,500 of its population. The population drop can be attributed to airmen who were overseas or elsewhere while homes were being renovated on Little Rock Air Force Base, the mayor has said.

Fletcher continued, “I think we’ve all got concerns. We’re all concerned about the pinch, if I can use that word, that cost all our employees…At this point, the departments have cut down so much that to lay someone off now would cut services.”

Alderman Kenny Elliott said, “I know there’s a lot of concern on city employees. The staff has worked very hard on it, and different department heads have worked very hard on the budget. I’ve tried going through it as best I can and everything. I wish there were some places we could cut there, but one thing I do want to do is to go on record saying we should make sure that, when we have additional money come in, we look at replacing some of these cuts, getting these cuts back, before we spend money on other items.”

Erkel presented an unbalanced budget to the council in early November. It included all funding requests from every department.

The budget presented then showed that Jacksonville had to make up for a $2.95 million shortfall by making cuts and/or generating more revenue. The council did both.