DECATUR – As Decatur city staff begin the process of plotting a 2021 budget, some council members made it clear during a Monday study session there is one area that is off limits when it comes to cuts to offset any shortfalls caused by the coronavirus.
"I am not at all willing to entertain a reduction in force of our first responders," councilwoman Lisa Gregory said during a study session that also included discussion of the planned Brush College/Faries Parkway.
The same message was shared by council members David Horn and Rodney Walker.
With the increase in shootings and violence in the city in recent weeks, "We need all the help we can get," Walker said. He is also in favor of finding ways to help small businesses who are suffering due to the shutdowns.
City Manager Scot Wrighton said the city staff will begin preparing a budget for 2021 and he was seeking input from the council on what their priorities should be. The city will be "OK" for 2020, but 2021 is an unknown because circumstances could change rapidly and the budget should reflect that.
City staff estimated revenue shortfalls due to COVID-19 shutdowns would be between $5 million and $5.5 million. As a result of cost reduction measures and grant funding that will be received through the end of the calendar year, the actual net loss to the city will be approximately $2 million.
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Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe said revenue shortfalls are due to a variety of factors, mostly related to COVID-19. Besides the loss of sales tax revenue because businesses closed down, people have not been having weddings and other events that would have brought visitors and revenue to the city and with so many people staying at home, the gas tax revenues have fallen as well.
"People aren't driving as much," Moore Wolf said. "I hardly ever fill up my car anymore."
The current budget authorizes total staffing of 449, but that number was reduced to 432 through attrition and retirements. Because of this, no layoffs or involuntary furloughs will occur in 2020.
General fund cash reserves began the fiscal year at $8.3 million, or 43 days cash reserve. Using the 9-point financial plan, the cash reserve will be about $6.3 million at year’s end, a reserve of only a little over a month.
For 2021, the city is considering several ways to reduce expenditures, including: Explore the use of an insurance pool to reduce workers compensation costs; analysis of the Central Garage and central fueling operations to see how both can be re-engineered to save costs; obtain vehicles through a market-replacement lease contract to reduce overall vehicle acquisition costs; use short-term bonding or other debt financing to smooth the financial impact of selected capital costs that cannot be deferred.
When the discussion turned to the Brush College/Faries Parkway project, Wrighton told the council scope of it has decreased since it was originally envisioned almost 10 years ago.
At this point, the main focus is to relieve congestion due to stopped or working trains on the crossing at that intersection, which Moore Wolfe said was 17 hours a week and is creeping up toward 24 hours a week. With such a significant number of the city's workers dependent on that intersection to reach their jobs, and Richland Community College students headed to classes, moving forward on that project must be a priority, she said.
The city is aggressively pursuing funding to fill the gap between estimates that were made earlier in the process and current projected costs now that the engineering and design work is about 60% complete, Wrighton said.
The Brush College Road improvement project includes multiple components, each a significant undertaking in its own right: the overpass at Faries Parkway; an overpass just a few blocks south to take vehicles over a Norfolk Southern-owned rail yard; and a state project to widen the intersection with East William Street Road and expand Brush College Road from two lanes to four lanes, officials have said. The current phase of work is estimated to cost about $40 million, while officials previously put the cost of the full project at more than $80 million.
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Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter