DECATUR — City leaders are rolling out a spending plan and tax levy proposal for 2020, as well as a list of seven major goals that they say helped choose the spending priorities.
City Manager Scot Wrighton will present the coming year’s budget during Monday night’s city council meeting. It includes $70 million in spending in the general fund, which covers much of the city’s operating expenses. Wrighton told council members in a memo that while the budget is “balanced,” because revenues exceed spending, the city’s general fund is not strong and relies on some one-time-only revenue sources.
“Even though the Great Recession is over, the city of Decatur's budget remains structurally imbalanced because negative forces outweigh positive ones,” he wrote. “Without structural change, almost every year the City Council must choose, to some degree, between increasing taxes and fees, or reducing services or reserves.”
City staff said rising public safety pension costs drove a proposed tax levy increase of 2.2% under a measure the council will vote on Dec. 2. The tax levy would increase by roughly $309,000, for a total proposed levy of roughly $14.2 million.
"The tax levy is the principal finance mechanism to fund pensions," City Treasurer Gregg Zientara said.
Wrighton said in a memo the city would anticipate "no increase in taxes for individual property owners who have made no improvements in their real estate since last year.”
Wrighton said a structural imbalance in the budget creates an ongoing struggle between the city and the unions that represent employees. He said the labor groups work to "wrest control over pensions and insurance from elected officials and lock in benefit levels for both current and future employees — even though financing these benefits is not structurally sustainable."
Three categories made up more than 41% of government expenses in 2018 and 2019: pensions, group insurance and workman's compensation, he said. To fix the imbalance, Wrighton said, the percentage needed to be closer to 20% of general government spending.
Public safety pension costs, which are a challenge for communities across Illinois, also drove Wrighton and the council to create a new community liaison officer position in the Decatur Police Department. The civilian position would have employees gain pension benefits out of the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund, which requires a lower city contribution.
The 2020 proposed budget for the police department would include 138 sworn police officers, eight sworn administrators and 12 community staff, four of which would be community liaison officers. Last year, the council had budgeted for 145 sworn police officers. The proposed budget also includes 102 firefighters, two fewer than had been included in this year's spending plan.
Councilman David Horn said the drop in staffing is concerning.
"This comes at a time when response times for certain calls are the longest they have been in the last five years," he said.
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In the memo, Wright listed several other measures besides the civilian positions that he planned to introduce because the city cannot keep adding full-time manpower. They included the use of seasonal workers for the public works department, contracted outsourcing for human resources training and special projects and "ongoing analyses to 'right-size' staffing."
Also in the coming year, city leaders will continue to focus on building strong cash reserves, which could help to pay employees and continue operations in an emergency. Financial reports say the general fund cash position ended August at $8 million, or about 43 days of spending.
Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe said the council would continue to focus on the cash reserves in the coming year.
"It is basically a savings account," Moore Wolfe said. "We don't want this to just be a rainy day fund. Ideally we want to be at 90 days."
Included in the budget proposal is a document with the city’s top seven goals and explanations of how steps toward each would be funded. Developed during study session discussion earlier this year, the goals are:
- Neighborhood revitalization
- Grow, enhance and better prepare the local workforce to meet current and future demands
- Take downtown Decatur to the next level
- Implement selected new technologies that will improve municipal service delivery and create operational efficiencies
- Implement new revenue initiatives and cost reduction measures designed to make Decatur more financially secure and its operation more sustainable
- Collaborate with other stakeholders so that the management of Lake Decatur and adjoining public open spaces is integrated into a coordinated plan
- Create an inspirational vision for Decatur and chart a pathway that ensures current and existing strategic plans are linked so that future visions are implemented and realized
Some neighborhood goals include creating or joining a land bank, setting aside infrastructure money for new sidewalks and lighting in the inner city, and improving access to odd-time public transit routes to help people keep their jobs.
To help develop downtown, city leaders hope to attract a hotel to the area and incentivize downtown housing projects. The strategic plan goals include commissioning a market study for a hotel
For instance, bringing a hotel to the downtown area would help address the goal of taking it “to the next level.” The city plans to commission a market study for a downtown hotel to look at whether one would be viable, whether “public financial participation” would be appropriate and where the best sites would be.
As part of using new technologies, city leaders want to develop a "Decatur App" to direct residents and visitors to special events, available downtown parking spaces and other visitor and guest services. They are also interested in using more surveillance cameras in the “urban core” of the city.
The budget also includes funding to implement police body cameras. The use of cameras had been tested in a pilot program over the summer in which eight police officers wore body cameras.
Council members will review the budget proposal during a study session, but a vote on it and the tax levy proposal will not take place during tonight’s meeting.
Contact Analisa Trofimuk at (217) 421-7985. Follow her on Twitter: @AnalisaTro