Over the next two months, the budget will be analyzed, debated and reshaped before being approved by the city council. I found it useful to read the proposed budget in its current form to get a sense of city staff priorities, and also to try to anticipate how much churn the budget will go through before the final vote is taken.
The 2012 city budget is the final plan to be authored under Limardi, who will depart his position around the end of the year. Unsurprisingly, the proposed budget looks a lot like the city budgets of the last few years, though, unlike last years's budget, this one contains no proposed property tax increase. For all the hue and cry during the last mayoral election about the city finances, my conclusion in reviewing the draft budget is similar now as then -- the city is and has been operating fairly efficiently.
Fewer full-time employees
For example, the proposed 2012 budget has a reduced city staff payroll, down to 274 from 278 full-time equivalent (FTE) jobs. However, the trend line already started in the downward direction five years ago, when the city employed more than 317 FTEs. Now, having one staffer for every 110 citizens might be higher than some other communities, but that number incorporates our full fire, police, water, sewer and other roles.
The proposed budget has a nearly-identical $52 million in expenditures for the city's daily operations. It differs from the 2011 budget in the area of capital improvements, where the proposed budget has a reduction by 60 percent, down from $19.4 million to $7.8 million. The change is based in part on ongoing discussions around improvements for the water treatment plant.
Water and sewer rate increases considered
Speaking of water, though, the city is considering rate increases for both water and sewers. The water increase is a nominal 1.6 percent, but for sewers, a 40 percent increase for residential customers is proposed in 2012, towards an eventual proposed doubling of the rate by 2014.
The sewer budget also contemplates issuing $5 million in debt to fund major improvements, at least until the rate-doubling comes into play. Meanwhile, the sewer department is decreasing its staff size. Residents brought up sewer lining, rodding and replacement but I don't see anything about reimbursements, paying for individual line clearing, or anything else discussed before the election in this proposal.
City will use reserve funds
There are some election themes playing out, though. The proposed 2012 budget would end the year with $33.6 million in various reserve funds, down from a reserve level expected to be $36.7 million at the end of 2011, and $35.4 million going into 2011. Of the net change, $475,000 is allocated to Highland Park Public Library projects, and $346,000 to cover shortfall at the Highland Park Country Club.
The good news in all of this is that the city is expected to end 2011 with higher reserves than it started the year with, the result of higher-than-anticipated revenues from sales taxes and other sources.
Traffic infraction revenue
One thing that surprised me in the full budget, which runs hundreds of pages long, was the anticipated revenue from various traffic infractions. Parking and traffic fines add up to $516,000 in revenue, but the red light cameras at US41 and Park Avenue alone bring in an anticipated additional $550,000. I would have thought all the cell phone holders and me-first downtown drivers would provide ample additional revenue opportunity for our police, more than the eye in the sky on the highway.
In the coming weeks, our newly-elected mayor and councilmen will have the opportunity to help shape the final budget. My bet is the end result will look a lot like the proposal, even if some of the funding ends up in different buckets. No new taxes are good, but if that is accomplished by raising fees and reducing reserves, it isn't really different from how the city has operated the last few years.