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Watch now: Decatur council considers pension cuts, other ideas to deal with budget shortfall

Watch now: Decatur council considers pension cuts, other ideas to deal with budget shortfall

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May 11 Study Session

The Decatur City Council chambers in the Civic Center are shown on Monday. The council is considering how to stem financial losses due to COVID-19.

DECATUR — Cuts to police and fire pension funds could be on the table as an outcome of the coronavirus pandemic, but city council members won’t need to make a decision for several months. 

The money-saving move was one of several discussed during a city council study session Monday. City Manager Scot Wrighton, in council chambers for the meeting along with Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe and some staff, explained several potential measures that could offset what is expected to be a major budget shortfall.

The rest of the council participated in the session via Zoom, a video conferencing application. No actions are taken during study sessions. Councilman Rodney Walker did not participate.

The pandemic and closure of businesses is expected to cause a sharp decline in funds that make up the municipal budget, including video gaming revenues, parking fines and sales, income, motor fuel, hotel-motel and food-beverage taxes, among other sources. 

Wrighton presented a list of budget-saving measures, but said it's difficult to predict the total impact the pandemic will have on the budget. Staff has to go off of educated guesses based on data for now, he said. 

Steps ranged from refinancing long-term debts to limiting the city’s contribution to the fire and police pension funds for a period of time, which would not require council action until November, officials said.

“There is no silver bullet to solving this,” Wrighton said. 

Council members expressed concern moving forward with the pension measure, but said that the unprecedented times might require the move. 

The council last year approved hiring two community liaison officers to assist police officers with paperwork and to limit the number of members utilizing the pension fund. Community liaison officers joined the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund. 

The pension consideration comes after three fire inspectors retired on May 1. Decatur Fire Lt. Todd Cox during the public comment portion of the meeting asked the council why it was up for consideration to not fill the jobs. 

"The city's proposal is to not fill those positions right now," said Cox after the meeting. "These are jobs that cannot be done by civilians; they have to be done by trained firefighters."

Wrighton during the meeting mentioned how other communities have utilized civilians or off-duty officers being paid at an overtime rate. But Cox said fire investigations have to be conducted by firefighters. He added the potential cuts to fire and police staff would be inappropriate as both entities are "lean as it is." 

Council members could also consider cutting pay or hours for city staff. Councilman Chuck Kuhle said he calculated that a 20% cut in pay for staff across the board would mean an extra $5.4 million for the city. Wrighton reiterated a message he previously communicated to employees when he asked for voluntary furloughs and said the city would avoid forced layoffs. 

Another measure proposed by Wrighton is utilizing a clinic for city employees, which would ultimately lower health care costs for the city. Employees would still have the option to choose their health care provider but a clinic specifically for city employees would eliminate co-payments and fulfill the role of some emergency room visits, Wrighton said. The measure was up for consideration prior to the pandemic. 

The meeting ended with council members offering thoughts related to the pandemic and what is happening in Decatur. Gov. J.B. Pritzker last week announced plans to reopen the state by region if infection rates hit certain benchmarks. On Monday, the governor said new modeling data shows COVID-19 cases won't peak until mid-June, a month later than expected. It will take months before operations return to normal under the plan. 

Kuhle said he worries about the long-term impact of the closure on the economy and that there may not be any businesses left when the state reopens. He said the virus impacts the elderly who are "some of the most wise citizens" and should be allowed to decide if they want to go out.

Councilman David Horn said their top priority should be the safety of Decatur residents. 

30 photos from the Herald & Review photo archives

Contact Analisa Trofimuk at (217) 421-7985. Follow her on Twitter: @AnalisaTro

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