Municipal service cuts: Part of the new normal?

“’Do more with less’ is what the slogan has been for many years. It seems to me that we are now at the point of doing less with less.'”–Dane County, Wisconsin, County Board Vice Chairman John Hendrick

Dane County, Wisconsin (population 488,073): Emergency shelter for homeless families, medical help for the dangerously drunk and assistance for the disabled are among the services that would be reduced or at risk in the initial draft of Dane County’s 2012 budget. County Executive Joe Parisi instructed department heads to submit budgets cutting up to 10 percent in the face of state aid reductions, limits on tax revenues and the sluggish economy.

Overall, county departments from the Sheriff’s Office to public works to parks are proposing cuts of $21 million and 13 layoffs, with a dozen vacant positions eliminated. It’s unclear which cuts will eventually be made. The departmental budget proposals differ from previous years because they call for the layoffs — not just eliminations of vacant positions — which would mean employees bumping into new jobs and disrupting operations, said County Board Vice Chairman John Hendrick.

Also, social services cuts aren’t spread evenly among agencies, and for the first time since the 1990s there is no allowance to help nonprofits comply with pay raises required under the county living wage ordinance, he said.

Some cuts in mental health, bail monitoring and crime prevention would eventually result in higher jail and in-patient psychiatric costs, said board Chairman Scott McDonell.

Lynn Green, head of the county Human Services Department, proposes cutting $200,000 from a contract with Tellurian UCAN and eliminating its 19 “detox” beds, where police can bring people who are incapacitated by alcohol to dry out for 24 hours. Without the detox center, though, police will need to take the dangerously inebriated to hospital emergency rooms, where they may have lower priority, meaning officers will have to wait long periods of time with drunks before they can drop them off safely and go back on patrol, said Madison Police Chief Noble Wray.

Green’s budget proposal anticipates hundreds of thousands of dollars from state, federal and other sources to offset reductions for the disabled. She acknowledged that getting the money isn’t a sure thing. Aid to the disabled would erode under the proposal, with clients having less independence and dignity, and some being forced into nursing homes, said Richard Berling, who directs Madison Area Rehabilitation Centers, Inc. The proposal also halves county funds for a Salvation Army overflow shelter for families. Green said she wants to put resources into long-term solutions for the homeless instead of emergency “Band-Aids.” Read more at the Wisconsin State Journal.

 

Palm Beach Gardens, Florida (population 48,452): No raises for fewer city employees, shorter hours at the Burns Road Recreation Center and less money for neighborhood programs are why officials say higher taxes won’t be considered at the final budget hearing on Sept. 22. The proposed budget for next year is $108 million, up from this year’s $105 million. The proposed property tax rate of $5.74 per each $1,000 of assessed value would mean the owner of a home assessed at $250,000 with a $50,000 homestead exemption would pay $1,148. The rate does not include school, county and other taxes. The proposed budget includes an increase in the city’s monthly communications tax that would cost the average resident about $50 annually. That tax increase will raise about $1.1 million annually. Budget highlights include:

  • Parks and recreation money would be reduced from $4.8 million to $4.1 million. That means less mowing of lawns and lighting at city parks. The Burns Road Recreation center will continue to have shorter weekend hours between September and Memorial Day.
  • Elimination of the Military Trail grant program, which gave homeowners on the road up to $5,000 to fix up their houses.
  • The budget for the 117-member police department would increase from the current $20.9 million to $21.9 million.
  • The budget for the 118-member fire department would decrease from the current $18.8 million to 18.6 million.
  • No pay raises for the 436 city employees, who have not received raises since 2009. There were 514 city employees in 2007.
  • Combining the city’s police dispatch service with Jupiter and Juno Beach at the Garden’s emergency operations center. Gardens expects to make about $200,000 annually by charging the two towns for the dispatch service. Read more at the Palm Beach Post.

Youngtown, Arizona (population 6,163): Youngtown will go broke within three years if officials don’t drastically cut services or find new sources of revenue, town leaders say. The town, like other municipalities across the state, is suffering declining revenues from the recession and additional costs passed down by the state Legislature. Officials, who are hosting two public meetings this month on the town’s dwindling resources, rolled out a public survey last week. They said the community’s 6,163 residents have five options:

  • Become a county island.
  • Merge with El Mirage or Peoria.
  • Eliminate services by closing facilities such as the Police Department.
  • Authorize its first property tax to fund existing services.
  • Do nothing and continue operating until the town depletes its $1.8 million in savings.

The Town Council recently approved a $4.7 million budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year. It’s more than last year’s $3,983,000 budget due to incoming grants and unspent money from last year. Officials say they drew $630,000 from its rainy day fund to balance this year’s budget. If that continues – assuming no additional revenue streams are obtained – the savings will last until 2014-15, barring a major emergency expense that could hasten its depletion. Such an emergency could include serious flood or storm damage to a city street or public facilities.

The town has a grim history of trying to sell voters on a primary property tax. Voters shot one down last year by 73 percent of the vote. The money would have helped sustain the Police Department’s $1.3 million budget, town leaders said. Its defeat forced $500,000 in cuts that included four officer layoffs. It also resulted in one layoff in the town’s public works department. The remaining eight-member force was called by an outside consultant “a Police Department in name only,” and the consultant recommended the department be disbanded.

Reducing staff and other spending in the town isn’t an option either, said Town Manager Lloyce Robinson. She said the town is already down to the “bare bones.” The town is also in a never-ending search for new sources of money, such as federal, state and tribal grants. They also recently hired a consultant to help the town market itself to businesses and developers in hopes of lifting sales taxes and developer impact fees.

If it’s absorbed by El Mirage or Peoria, the town comes under the control of those cities’ councils. If it becomes a county island, the cities services and infrastructure will be managed by the county Board of Supervisors. Read more in the Arizona Republic.

 

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