Courier Staff Writer
The City Council is coming closer and closer to finalizing the city’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
City Administrator Joe Helfenberger presented further changes to the budget at Tuesday’s council meeting.
A total of $40,050 in reductions were made in budgeted general fund expenditures, with cuts found in police, fire, engineering, parks, planning and more. Department heads also made cuts in general fund revenue totaling $29,500.
The most notable cuts were made in the sewer fund, a total of more than $370,000 cuts in expenditures. The department was able to find a number of equipment purchases that can be deferred for now.
Public Works Director Larry Seals requested an addition to his budget to hire another design technician in order to handle the department’s increased construction and grant load and new projects over the past decade.
Seals and City Engineer Dan Sturm compared projects that used outside consultants for the design and inspection aspects versus what the cost would have been in-house.
“You’ll see that in-house costs are a lot lower when we’re able to complete that workload,” Sturm said.
Prior to the Pennsylvania Avenue project, engineers had estimated design costs around $300,000, Sturm said. In-house, design only ended up totaling $85,000.
To emphasize how much more work the engineering department has now taken on, Sturm looked back on the amount of Capital Improvement Projects the department has completed over the years.
In 2007-08, the department did six projects, totaling around $1.1 million. In the upcoming fiscal year, city engineers expect to complete 11 projects, totaling nearly $9.9 million.
That’s an 880 percent increase from six years ago, Sturm said.
And since 2003, the department has been granted nearly $46 million in grants. Of that, $16 million is the FEMA grant the city recently received to complete the 2010 Flood Protection Mitigation Project.
“The workload has been increasing drastically over the last several years,” Sturm said. “We can do the design a lot cheaper in-house.”
Over time, Seals said the Department of Transportation has shifted more and more of its inspections to local jurisdictions, as well as citywide sewer cleaning, GIS mapping and more.
“That takes a lot of staff time,” Seals said. “We’ve got our staff pretty much maxed out. With another design tech, we can reduce what we contract out.”
Seals said the city could save approximately $150,000 to $200,000 per year by hiring another design tech and not needing to contract out as many projects. Those savings would go back into brick and mortar type projects, he said.
And the design tech could also assume an inspection role, as do other design techs in the department.
The council also approved the Ottumwa Fire Department’s request to send Deputy Chief Cory Benge to police academy training in order to be able to arrest those he investigates, particularly in arson cases.
“This would give him the ability not only to interrogate and investigate, but to arrest at a reduced cost to the city,” said Fire Chief Tony Miller.
Currently, Benge must work alongside an Ottumwa police officer to complete his investigations, “and the police department is swamped most of the time,” Miller said.
Police Chief Jim Clark said sending Benge to the academy would be beneficial both to the community and to the OPD.
“It’s important that a person go to the academy, because interrogation is not just, ‘Did you do it?’” Clark said. “There’s a lot of case law he needs to learn on what he can and can’t do.”
Clark also requested that the council consider increasing the salary for sergeants, which they approved.
“Basically, the collective bargaining agreement raised the top officers because they were underpaid based on other departments,” Clark said. “The problem is the sergeants’ pay was never raised accordingly. A starting sergeant makes less than a starting officer if you look at the pay scale.”
This, in turn, leads to the department struggling to find officers that want to be promoted to the position of sergeant.
The next step in the budget process is a public hearing on March 5. After this point, the council can always cut from the budget but cannot raise it above the “ceiling” they’ve established.
By March 15, the adopted budget is certified to the county auditor, who then certifies it to the Iowa Department of Management.
Councilman Brian Morgan noted that while current and past councils have been successful in cutting from the budget where needed to save costs, it’s coming to a point where future councils may have to start cutting services and/or jobs.
“We’re getting down close to the point of saying let’s put all parks employees seasonal and cut firefighters and policemen,” Morgan said.