Topeka looks at cuts and higher property taxes to balance budget

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The budget belt must be tightened, and city council members in Topeka are faced with three choices. The city manager has said they can order 5% cuts across the board, they could raise taxes, or his recommendation: a combination of the two that would spare emergency departments. Kansas First News talked with the police and fire chiefs to talk about what would happen if they had to make cuts.

The situation is serious: “Five point six five million dollars,” interim budget director Jeff White said of the projected budget shortfall for the 2014 general fund.

White and the city manager asked the departments to see what a 5% cut would look like.

“When we talk about police, fire, municipal court, prisoner fees, [it] is about 75%; three out of every four dollars of the general fund,” white explained. “So, when you’re talking about any significant reduction to the general fund, it’s very hard to have that conversation without talking about public safety.”

“With a 25.8 million dollar budget, 5% is 1.3 million, and the options are very few,” Fire Chief Greg Bailey said. “They are absolutely minimal as a matter of fact. The only place that we could realize a cut of that magnitude is in personnel.”

Chief Bailey says if the fire department was forced to take a cut, they would have to sacrifice 21 firefighters or two entire companies. Meanwhile, the police would lose 25 sworn officers on the street, but the chief says the department wouldn’t look much different. There are currently 25 open positions that won’t be filled until later this month according to Police Chief Ron Miller.

“Thirty-seven million dollars of the city’s general fund is a considerable amount of money, but the reality is it’s a 365 member organization that has a fleet of 250 cars,” Chief Miller reasoned.

The chiefs say they already run lean.

“We’re pretty much at the bare core minimum at what an entity who are expected to perform the task that we are,” the fire chief insisted. The police chief agreed: “The reality is the police department really runs on about $5 million the rest of all the expenses are all personnel costs.”

Again, it would be the worst case scenario if all city departments were forced to take a 5% cut across the board. Another option is to raise taxes.

“The managers recommendation is some of each,” interim budget director Jeff White said. “Some revenue increase and some budget reductions in order to get us into the balance.”

But there’s really only one way to pay.

“An  increase in the sales tax takes time and has to be voted by the people so really in order to generate any sort of significant increase in revenue,” White explained. “We have to look at property taxes.”

The increase the city would need is a little less than 5 mills which amounts to $50 per year on a $100,000 home. Under the city manager’s proposal the police and fire department’s budgets would be spared, but the other departments could face cuts.

Police Chief Ron Miller says no one wants higher taxes, but based on recent neighborhood summits he believes Topekans are willing to pay their part.

“People have actually stood up in those meetings and said these are things we would be willing to pay for if it’s explained to us what the purpose of the increase is,” Chief Miller told Kansas First News.

Fire Chief Greg Bailey agrees. A cut to public safety would mean a loss of 21 firefighters and 25 police officers.

“Our citizens count on us and rely on us to be there when they need us to be there,” Bailey said.

White says revenues are just now getting back to where they were before the global credit crisis. Now, the city must find $5.65 million dollars just to maintain.

Although the fire department wouldn’t take a cut, Chief Bailey says they still share the responsibility.

“We are a part of city government, so what happens to our colleagues in public works, h.r., and communications throughout the city employment workforce it has either a direct or indirect impact on all of us,” Bailey said with solidarity.

The Topeka city council will conduct another budget meeting this coming Saturday, July 20th from 9 am to noon at the Law Enforcement Center. Police and fire have already presented to the council. Now, the other departments: legal, municipal court, finance, human resources, information technology, executive, council, and the mayor’s office will go before them. The last night the governing body has to make decisions concerning the 2014 budget is Tuesday, August 20th.

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