Budgets across most city departments are dropping, staffing levels are down, and health care costs continue to climb as Birmingham's government and services continue to search for ways to reduce expenses.
That was the message heard time and time again at the Birmingham's public budget hearing Saturday at . Representatives from city-funded departments — including the , , planning department, engineering and the other offices in City Hall — presented their 2011-12 budgets for the City Commission and public discussion.
Overall, the city’s recommended budget for 2011-12 is a little more than $60 million, a 10 percent reduction from last year. In addition, residents are looking at a 15.68 millage next year, up from 14.99 mills in 2010-11.
According to City Manager Bob Bruner and his staff, the budget is intended to maintain fiscal stability while improving city infrastructure. However, Bruner acknowledged that several of the city’s main revenue sources continue to decline — including property taxes and state revenue sharing — making spending money more difficult than ever.
Dozens of residents and city staff members filtered in and out of the meeting throughout the day, which ran from 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Many of the proposed budgets faced little criticism by commissioners or members of the public, with city commissioners frequently acknowledging the challenges faced by city staff.
City staff will now review commission comments and make any necessary revisions to the budget. The commission will then adopt the budget on or before the second Monday in June. For the complete agenda, visit the City Commission's website.
City department budget presentations
Following is a running report of the day's presentations and discussion:
2:30 p.m.: Capital improvements
The city is requesting $1.5 million for capital improvements in 2011-12, a decrease from $2.7 million in 2010-11. Projects planned for the upcoming year include several road projects and building improvements, bridge construction and various projects in city parks.
2:20 p.m.: Baldwin Public Library
Baldwin Public Library presented a $3.18 million budget for 2011-12 — up from $3 million in last year — as well as a proposed millage increase from 1.1 mills to 1.32 mills, or $34 per household.
Library Director Doug Koschik was apprehensive as he discussed the library’s proposal, which includes slashing hours and laying off three full-time employees as the library faces a 6.1 percent increase in expenses and a projected 40 percent loss in state funding.
The majority of funds earned from the increased millage would be spent on capital projects, Koschik said, including self-checkout stations, a mechanized sorting system, radio identification chips and a new computer system. In total, these projects are projected to cost $388,000.
Koschik said the new technology will help offset significant losses in staffing. Since 2008, the full-time head count at the library has decreased from 26 to 18, and in the upcoming year, the library will lay off an additional three full-time workers. Other plans to save money include potentially closing the library one day a week.
Moving forward, Koschik said the library wants to maintain a fund balance that is 15 percent of the total operating expenses, covering the library in case of a financial emergency, such as the withdrawal of one of its service contracts with Beverly Hills or Bingham Farms. Other than that, the library will be working to “maintain appearances,” Koschik said, rather than planning significant changes to the infrastructure.
Commissioner Mark Nickita complimented Koschik and the library board for their work. “I think you’re positioning the library the way it needs to be,” he said. However, he questioned the sense of immediacy with many of the capital projects, stressing the need to have some return on investment.
Koschik said many of the projects should pay themselves off within one to four years, but he admitted it would have been easier financially if the library could have implemented them when staffing levels were higher.
1:05 p.m.: Principal Shopping District and Birmingham Historical Museum
Principal Shopping District
John Heiney, director of the (PSD), brought a $988,950 proposed budget before the commission, up from $974,960 last year.
Heiney was optimistic about his plans, assuring commissioners the department has implemented several cost-saving measures while keeping budgets for marketing, maintenance and business development flat. The PSD’s special events fund went up by $40,000 for 2011-12, largely reflecting the addition of the Winter Markt, which was held in December with plans to make it an annual event.
Birmingham Historical Museum and Park
Director Leslie Pielack presented the museum’s budget for 2011-12:
- Allen House: $98,910 (down from $132,750)
- Hunter House: $9,500 (down from $10,830)
Pielack said much of the budget drop can be attributed to a 33 percent decrease in personnel. When Mayor Gordon Rinschler asked whether this staffing level is sustainable, Pielack said it is an issue the museum is continually evaluating. “It’s challenging to see how (the museum’s goals) are shaping and what we really need,” Pielack said.
1 p.m.: Information technology, enterprise funds
Enterprise funds are used for government activities similar to those that might be performed by a private commercial entity. The following are proposed figures for the 2011-12 budget, compared with last year’s numbers:
- Automobile parking system: $4.73 million (down from $5.3 million)
- Water supply system: $3.87 million (down from $4 million)
- Sewage disposal: $9.4 million (up from $9 million)
- Lincoln Hills Golf Course: $667,500 (down from $936,000)
- Springdale Golf Course: $472,600 (down from $481,520)
As for big projects, City Engineer Paul O’Meara said his department has construction plans for the Pierce Street and North Old Woodward parking garages during the upcoming year.
Regarding the water supply system and sewage costs, city officials said there will be a 2.8 percent increase in water rates in the upcoming year, based on average water consumption last year. This results in a 9-cent increase per household. Sewage costs are going up 8 percent, an increase of 65 cents per household.
As for the city’s golf courses, Wood referenced a , noting that the golf courses have plans to address the deficits of the past few years. In 2010, Lincoln Hills had a $122,177 deficit, while Springdale had a deficit of $22,381.
Information technology is requesting $1.01 million for 2011-12, down from $1.03 million last year.
Noon: Special revenue funds
Major and local street funds
Special revenue funds are projected to decrease in 2011-12. These funds include the major street and local street funds, which are used to pay for construction and maintenance on the city’s major and side streets. There are approximately 63 miles of local streets and 22 miles of major streets throughout Birmingham. Maintenance includes repairing potholes, sealing cracks, snow and ice control and care of city trees, among other functions.
For 2011-12, the city is requesting $3.09 million for the major street fund and $3.11 million for the local street fund. Both figures represent a decrease of about $800,000 in their respective funds from last year.
The city’s highest priority, according to City Engineer Paul O’Meara, is a stretch of Maple Road between Adams and Eton roads. Plans also include repairs of Graiefield Road and lining sewers in Quarton Lake neighborhood.
Community development block grants
Also affected by the special revenue funds are community development block grants, which the county receives annually from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Funds from the grant may be used only to support approved activities. In the past, Birmingham has used to the funds to provide public services for senior or low-income households and barrier-free access to city buildings.
In November, the city submitted an application for various projects in 2011-12, including providing yard and senior outreach services and maintaining the Allen House Historical Museum and Baldwin Library.
The city is requesting $37,500 to fund these projects in 2011-12, down from $64,551 in 2010-11.
Solid waste fund
The solid waste fund, which provides for all costs associated with the collection and disposal of solid wastes in residential areas, is budgeted for $1.65 million for 2011-12, down from $1.68 million last year.
11:40 a.m.: Engineering and Public Services
The city’s is requesting $534,330 for 2011-12, down from $599,480 in 2010-11. The biggest item of concern during the upcoming year will be fluctuating staff levels, according to City Engineer Paul O’Meara. There are three full-time positions in the engineering department, and with a retirement slated for this year, O’Meara said he is planning to hire someone new to replace that position.
For the sidewalk budget, the department is looking for $359,700 this year, up from $334,700 last year. With these funds, the department plans to replace or repair half of the city’s sidewalks, as needed, during the upcoming year, O'Meara said.
As for alley maintenance, engineering is requesting $25,000, up from $20,004 in 2010-11. At this level of funding, O’Meara said there is just enough money to repair trouble spots throughout the city. If the city wishes to completely repair or replace an alley, O’Meara said direction from the commission would be required.
Director Lauren Wood presented her department’s plans for 2011-12, asking for a $330,040 budget in the upcoming year, down from $337,419 last year.
Wood said the department has saved money by eliminating 12 positions during the past five years and is anticipating eliminating eight more during the upcoming year.
Other budget items for the upcoming year include (compared with 2010-11 figures):
- Property maintenance: $797,040 (up from $788,420)
- Weed/snow enforcement: $44,410 (up from $42,480)
- Ice sports arena: $656,150 (down from $751,590)
- Community activities: $260,740 (down from $271,050)
- Parks and Recreation: $1.04 million (down from $1.09 million)
10:55 a.m.: Public Safety
Police Chief Don Studt presented the ’s 2011-12 budget, which requests $5.97 million, down from $5.95 million in 2010-11.
The department is planning to maintain staffing levels at 29 sworn officers, though the detective bureau has been reduced to three officers. Commissioner Rackeline Hoff asked if this number was sufficient to keep the city safe, especially with the busy summer coming.
“Yes, I think we have enough,” Studt said. “If we don’t, then we’ll come back. But I think 29 is a number we can live with.”
Studt said that while staffing levels are down, the department is trying to save money by working with other municipalities on larger expenditures, such as squads to handle major cases. “Yes, we’re down personnel, but we’re trying to offset that with cooperative efforts with other departments,” he said.
The is asking for a $4.9 million for 2011-12, up 0.75 percent from last year’s budget of $4.86 million.
According to Fire Chief Michael Metz, the department is still dealing with the loss of Charlie Monti, the assistant fire chief and fire marshal . Metz said working with a reduced staff has been a strain on the department, which is also seeing an increase in its contributions in retirement and health care costs.
Metz spoke about replacing the , located at the corner of Chesterfield and Maple Road. The station is budgeted to be replaced in 2014-15, though Metz said that considering the station’s age and condition, the sooner the project begins, the better. “If it was up to me, we would begin construction on a new station tomorrow,” Metz said.
10 a.m: City Hall and other offices
Following are the proposed budgets for various city offices, compared with their 2010-11 figures:
- City Commission: $60,270 (down from $106,398)
- : $208,630 (down from $302,170)
- and grounds: $475,840 (down from $517,958)
- Property maintenance — library: $32,650 (down from $35,950)
- Legal: $463,460 (down from $544,050)
- : $400,870 (up from $391,800)
- : $306,470 (down from $308,930)
- : $807,480 (up from $806,205)
- : $676,690 (up from $661,860)
- Assessing: $206,200 (down from $207,250)
- Transfers out of the general fund: $4.07 million (down from $4.7 million)
- Contingency funds: $178,350 (down from $179,901)
According to Assistant City Manager Joe Valentine, much of the decline in the City Commission’s budget is due to money that was spent to conduct a nationwide city manager search to replace Tom Markus in 2010. Much of the decline in several city offices can also be attributed to general retirement costs and a reduction in personnel.
The city is also factoring in two to three elections in the upcoming year, though it is not sure yet whether it will be reimbursed for the expenses.
9:20 a.m.: Overall budget snapshot, general fund
The morning began with a video presentation by the city manager's office. The city is looking at a recommended budget of $60,380,417, a 10 percent reduction from last year. City millages are expected to increase to 15.68 mills:
- City operating millage: 11.7 mills
- Library operating millage: 1.32 mils
- Refuse millage: 0.89 mill
- Debt millage: 1.77 mills
Property taxes make up 47 percent of the city’s 2011-12 budget, though tax rates are expected to decrease 6.02 percent in the upcoming year. In 2011-12, the average property tax bill per household is expected to be $2,422.47.
The was the first department to present this morning, with a proposed, manager-recommended budget of $399,150. Commissioners questioned Planning Director Jana Ecker about how the department’s decrease in staffing has affected its productivity; currently, Ecker is the only full-time employee in the Planning Department, aided by two part-time planners and a planning intern.
“The toughest part was when we lost two full-time people in July,” Ecker said. “If we didn’t have that intern working 40 hours a week, I don’t know what I’d tell you.”
Commissioner Mark Nickita stressed the importance of the Planning Department in the reconstruction of Woodward Avenue going forward. “It’s a huge, very important undertaking,” he said. “I just want to planning to stay on top of that.”
The is asking for a $1.07 million budget for 2011-12, a 2 percent increase from the previous year. Building official Bruce Johnson said the department is experiencing boom times, a trend it expects to continue. According to Johnson:
- Building permits are up 30 percent
- New house permits are up 50 percent
- Additions and renovations permits are up 55 percent
Because of these trends, the department expects an increase in revenue for the upcoming year. However, Johnson noted that a smaller staff has strained the current roster of building inspectors. “I think it’s getting worse in that it’s taking us longer to address (problems),” he said. “There’s a lot out there we’re not looking at.”