Wauwatosa budget contributors keep an eye a year ahead
State levy limits may force service cuts in 2015
City leaders have begun their long review of a budget for next year, and yet it's the year after next — 2015 — that seems to worry them the most.
While putting together numbers for 2014, Mayor Kathy Ehley said at last week's Budget Committee meeting, "we talked a lot about the future. It's really a time to assess where this city is at right now and where do we want it to go."
The city has been assiduously cutting expenses in recent years, said Finance Director John Ruggini, but state-imposed levy limits will pose an even bigger challenge next year than this.
"We're severely restricted by the state on how much we can raise property taxes," Ruggini said. "And, over the past seven years, we really had a very strong emphasis on reducing expenditures, and so we just feel that there's very little left that we can reduce without affecting services."
How low can you go?
For example, a dual-use garbage and recycling program, fully implemented this year, has brought employment down to one operator per truck, saving tens of thousands of dollars. But it's hard to see how to make further cuts and still provide the service.
"Similarly on health care, we've significantly changed the health care plan for employees over the last seven years, and we just don't think we can change it enough to avoid making service reductions," Ruggini said.
The state allows increases in the levy in line with the rate of net new construction. For 2014, Wauwatosa's rate is 0.48 percent — not much.
Even consideration of fees as a way to produce revenue has been curtailed. Things the city might consider charging fees for — fire inspections, for example — would by state law have to be deducted from the levy, Ruggini said. Fees for, say, garbage collection or snow removal, would also be subject to deduction.
Municipalities around the state will face budget challenges like Wauwatosa's, depending on how many efficiencies they have created to date, and how heavily dependent the municipality is on property taxes. In Wauwatosa, about 70 percent of city revenue is provided by property taxes. Other jurisdictions may receive more funding from the state and federal government and be less dependent on property taxes.
Looming service cuts
This year's proposed budget projects heavy cuts this year and into the future, including the elimination of a fire prevention position from the Fire Department, a reduction in public safety education, delays in purchasing Fire Department software, the elimination of four Police Department positions through 2016, less funding for seal-coating and striping roads, and moving tree-trimming to a 12-year cycle from the current seven-year cycle.
And while the library will continue to receive a $40,000 supplement to its book budget, there is no plan to move the library above its current "moderate" level among its peers.
"Many departments are experiencing deficiencies to meet budgetary necessity. This will escalate through 2014-2016 to the point of service elimination," the budget document says.
Minuses for pluses
A couple of alternative priority discussions have already taken place. The proposed budget calls for a $10,000 deduction in the crossing guard program. Led by Alderman Joel Tilleson, the Budget Committee put that on hold.
And Alderman John Dubinski, a former police officer, recommended that a requested half-time IT department position to assist with the myriad technological needs of the Police Department be boosted to a request for a full-time job. A police sergeant has been helping the one existing IT person at the department, an expensive solution that takes the sergeant away from law enforcement duties, Dubinski said.
In both cases, Tilleson and Dubinski are asked to come up with savings somewhere else in the budget to pay for their proposals.
Other excruciating choices are sure to come, particularly in public-safety funding, where the choices last year were stark and raised the question of what kind of community city leaders want to provide.
"We're in the state of a huge transformation for all of us, and that can be quite painful," Mayor Kathy Ehley said, addressing the Budget Committee. "We must constantly balance between what our residents love about Wauwatosa — our neighborhoods, our schools, our green space, the walkable community, vibrant community, our business areas — and still be able to financially sustain the services that we provide."
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