Saturday, December 14, 2013

TOP STORY >> Tough cuts balance city budget

Leader staff writer

The Jacksonville City Council on Tuesday received a proposed balanced budget for 2014 that is about the same as 2013 and 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.

Finance director Cheryl Erkel said she would bring the $22 million budget to the council for approval at its next meeting, which is set for 7 p.m. Thursday at city hall.

The council passed the sales tax increase on alcohol, with an emergency clause that makes it effective immediately, at Tuesday’s meeting. The tax was increased to 10 percent of a business’ gross profits, the same rate several surrounding cities have, according to Mayor Gary Fletcher.

Erkel reported that, if the proposed budget were approved, there would be no cost-of-living or annual raises for city employees.

On the chopping block are a $20,246 clothing allowance, $20,000 in tuition reimbursement, $88,000 in longevity pay and $28,800 in degree-incentive pay.

If the budget is approved, the employee portion of free health insurance will also increase to $72 for individuals and from $115 to $150 for families.

But there will be no furloughs or layoffs, Erkel said.

Jacksonville won’t fill six positions that will be open after the beginning of the year. Alderman James Bolden warned, “That doesn’t mean the workload changes.”

The mayor said the positions are across the city. He continued, “Our intention is always to take care of our employees, but again, it’s that $1 million deficit. That census count killed us. It’s followed us…We’ve done an awful lot with as little as we have. The truth of the matter is it’s a very tight budget.”

Fletcher was referring to 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 wereoverseas or elsewhere while homes were being renovated on Little Rock Air Force Base, the mayor has said previously.

Alderman Terry Sansing thanked Fletcher and the department heads for working hard on the budget. “I know this was a very, very difficult year to deal with,” he said.

Erkel presented an unbalanced budget to the council early last month that included all funding requests from every department.

It showed that Jacksonville had to make up for a $2.95 million shortfall by making cuts or generating more revenue. On Tuesday, the council did both.

Of the department heads, Erkel said, “They cut as much as they possibly could.”

The increase in sales tax on alcoholic beverages was passed after local banker Phillip Carlisle and Amy Mattison, the chief executive officer of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, spoke to the council about the wet/dry petition.

Carlisle and Mattison are members of the Jacksonville Wet/Dry Campaign Com-mittee, which has collected about 13,000 signatures to put to a vote whether nearly 90 percent of the city should go wet or stay dry. The group must collect approximately 4,400 signatures, or 38 percent of registered voters in the dry area.

Carlisle said the most effective way to gather signatures is canvassing 41 neighborhoods.

“The numbers are not astronomical to get the percentage. They’re not. What is astronomical is getting the volunteers to do it,” the banker said.

He urged the aldermen to volunteer and to encourage Jacksonville employees to the same. But the banker acknowledged that he understood they couldn’t canvas on city time.

Carlisle pointed out that city officials and employees are going to see the most benefit if the city goes wet and gets thousands more in sales tax revenue.

Gesturing toward the council and department heads who attended the meeting, he continued, “We can’t get enough volunteers. So I look up and think ‘Who benefits? Who is the No. 1 benefactor who can help me get the most signatures? Here you go, right here…Everybody wins.”

Alderman Reedie Ray said people outside the city limits could sign the petition because they live in the dry area — the defunct Gray Township.

Bolden said, “(It’s) very controversial because of the fact I am a pastor. I want to really hit the issue. The issue is tax dollars…I don’t care how saved you are, how much you speak in tongues or shout, you go to a restaurant. And, when you go to a restaurant, there’s alcohol in the restaurant. Now I don’t drink. I preach against drinking. If you were to see me on TV (Bolden has a show on CW Arkansas on Sunday mornings), I’m very bold about it.

“But these tax dollars are needed, and I understand there are people who are drinking, sitting in the church, working in the church. Let’s get their tax dollars. We’ve got to realize that everybody has a vice. Why can’t Jacksonville make money off the vice? Why is North Little Rock getting all the new stuff? Why is Cabot getting all the new stuff? Why? If we don’t get this petition signed, we’re going to have problems.”

Applause followed his statement, but none of the aldermen announced at the meeting their intention of volunteering to collect signatures.

Carlisle also said the committee has $20,000 in donations to spend on the effort. The group is paying canvassers $2 for each valid signature they collect.

If wet supporters succeed and voters agree to go wet, restaurants, convenience and grocery stores will be allowed to sell alcoholic beverages without an expensive private-club license.

In addition to money from the 10 percent sales tax on alcoholic beverages, at least one other increase in revenue was included in the budget Erkel presented on Tuesday.

The city has received $850,000 in donations from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission for the shooting range.

Jacksonville also refinanced the city’s loan for 911 equipment from Motorola to increase cash flow.

Other changes to and details of the proposed budget were:

 The fire department applied for a $687,201 FEMA grant to purchase a new fire engine. It is expected to cost $692,351 with the $98,941 difference coming from the capital equipment fund. Erkel said the expenditure would not occur if the department doesn’t receive the grant.

 County sales tax revenues are estimated to increase by 0.5 percent.

 City sales tax revenues are estimated to increase by 1.8 percent.

 The city will transfer $290,000 to emergency medical services to increase cash flow and transfer $200,000 to capital improvement to replenish the transfer of funds to balance the 2013 budget.

 The debt service department includes loan payments of $417,863 to Motorola for 911 equipment, $732,693 for capital improvements and $720,178 for the shooting range.

 The city will use $740,197 in fund balance. A fund balance is revenue leftover after expenditures are subtracted from the total revenues.

 The street fund is $2.17 million that includes revenue from a Safe Routes to School grant and an increase in expenditures for sidewalk and drainage projects.

 The estimated revenues for the sanitation fund are $1.81 million. The estimated expenditures are $1.78 million. The increase in revenues will come from sanitation fees, Erkel said.

 The estimated revenues for the emergency medical services fund are $1.2 million. The estimated expenditures are $1.18 million. The increase in expenses is the planned purchase of new software and training, Erkel said.