OTTUMWA — Councilman Bob Meyers was blunt in his assessment of the city’s budget after it was presented Tuesday.
“It still comes down to we’re spending more than we’re taking in,” he said. “We have to look at some cuts.”
The threat of cuts to the police and fire departments has drawn a strong reaction from the public, with criticism of the city’s priorities, spending and tax rates lighting up social media. On Tuesday the discussion moved to the real world, with residents packing the council chambers.
It was likely the biggest crowd at a council meeting since contentious discussions on Bridge View Center’s construction more than a decade ago. The chambers had an overflow crowd before the meeting began, with people standing in aisles and spilling into the hallway outside.
Mayor Tom Lazio cast the basic budget decision as one between higher taxes and spending cuts. The budget, he noted, must be balanced to comply with state requirements. “The question comes down to you and to the public: Do you want to keep the same services with some cuts, or do you want to raise taxes?”
Critics cast the question as one of public safety, both with regard to fire response times and efforts to cut crime.
Firefighter Rodney Long, who has been outspoken about the effect of cuts on the department, said reductions to the city’s public safety departments could hold back the city’s efforts to attract new businesses and residents. He also cautioned the legal bills for delayed responses could be an additional cost.
“Not providing basic services opens the city up to so much litigation,” he said.
Most in the audience listened. Only three spoke. The most personal comment came from Cindy Kurtz Hopkins. She said her husband had a heart attack and would have died without quick treatment. Emergency responders were on the scene in less than four minutes. Her husband lived, but she worried someone else’s loved one might not if services are reduced.
The presentation by Lazio and Finance Director Kala Mulder followed the same basic format as the one made last week during a briefing for local media. Revenues from the city’s property tax levy are essentially flat in the upcoming budget year. Those dollars go into the general fund, which covers personnel expenses. The vast majority of those costs, 79 percent, are consumed by the police and fire departments. Those departments make up an even larger part of the net expenses in the general fund.
Cities can run a deficit provided their fund balances can cover it without dipping into what lenders consider a danger zone. That’s the case in the current budget year, which estimates suggest will run a deficit of about $415,000. But the gap between departmental requests and revenues for Fiscal 2021 would reduce fund levels lower than lenders are comfortable with, increasing the cost of borrowing. If the city didn’t need to issue bonds, that might not be a concern. But the ongoing sewer separation project, along with other plans, guarantee bonds will be needed.
That was a concern for Councilman Marc Roe, who asked how long it would take the fund to dip into negative territory if current trends continued. The answer was between 24 and 30 months.
Roe also asked about the cost of employee benefits, which take a much bigger bite out of Ottumwa’s budget than any comparable city. He pointed to Fort Dodge, which is closest to Ottumwa on that point.
“We’re looking at two cities here that are almost exactly the same size. Can you give me an explanation of why we’re almost double?” he asked.
Ottumwa pays 90 percent of those benefits, Mulder said. That’s a higher percentage than other cities.
Lazio said cuts may not be avoidable, if not this year then next.
“We’ve done everything that we can do, that is legal and within the union contracts,” he said.