By David Skolnick
City council members approved a budget but vowed to make other changes, including increases in funding for demolition and street paving, in the coming weeks.
The most significant change to the $154 million budget, approved Wednesday, was moving $555,000 from the police department’s $1.3 million overtime budget to its wages and benefits budget to hire 11 new officers. That was done against the advice of the city administration.
Also, Police Chief Jimmy Hughes said it would take up to a year to do background checks and properly train all 11 officers. About three officers could be hired by October or November at the earliest, he said.
The chief added that the $555,000 cut in overtime is needed for that purpose.
“If you cut overtime, I can’t afford to pay officers [to investigate major crimes], and it would reduce patrols,” Hughes said.
But the money switch is likely to revert back to overtime with only three new officers on the force for two to three months.
The police department has about 147 officers, 35 fewer than it had five years ago, Hughes said. Eight retired from the force since January. Additionally, Hughes retired March 18 but is staying on as chief through the summer while Mayor Jay Williams looks for a replacement.
About three to seven more officers are expected to be gone this year as part of a state retirement incentive program.
There isn’t any money in the city’s budget to hire new officers primarily because of the expense of paying five-figure severance packages to the retirees, said Finance Director David Bozanich. If the city saw an increase in its income-tax revenue, it could start hiring new officers, said Deputy Finance Director Kyle Miasek.
Despite that, council approved the overtime cut and use of the money to hire new officers.
“We’ve heard too often to wait till later to see if we have the money,” said Councilman Paul Drennen, D-5th. “We’re never going to hire police officers that way. We’ll have the same conversation six years from now. We need to take action now and quit stalling.”
Under state law, city council had until today to approve a balanced budget. State law also allows council to amend that budget throughout the year.
“This is a middle ground to get the budget passed,” said Councilman Jamael Tito Brown, D-3rd.
Council members said they would meet with the administration during the first few weeks of April to make further cuts that would free up money for what they want, such as more money for demolition and resurfacing, and to hire a chief city planner and a park and recreation director. Both jobs would be filled in the middle of the year, council members said.
“This was a starting point and not an ending point,” Councilman John R. Swierz, D-7th, said of the budget.
Council members wanted to cut at least $203,000 from the $1.6 million the city pays annually in professional services, and at least $125,000 from the $469,000 paid to management and nonunion workers in overtime.
Not including the overtime for managers in the water, street and wastewater departments — called out for emergencies — there’s about $70,000 left for manager overtime, Miasek said.
Council agreed to the administration’s recommendations to cut professional services and overtime by $40,000 each.
The plan is to use for street repaving that $80,000 as well as $26,000 cut from the downtown-event fund and $15,000 in reductions to council travel and discretionary funds.
The downtown-event cut came as a surprise to Lyndsey Hughes, director of downtown events, special projects and marketing. It leaves her with $50,800 to fund various events this year. The cut cancels the downtown Oktoberfest, among other events, and eliminates money for new downtown holiday decorations, she said.