Hogadon Tour

Interim City Manager Liz Becher visits Hogadon Basin Lodge earlier this month. Becher and city staff began presenting the proposed budget to City Council on Monday.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

Cities didn’t always have budgets.

“It was considered an odd thing to do,” said Casper’s Assistant Support Services Director Pete Meyers.

But over the last century they have become common practice, required by law and a way for elected officials to set government priorities by controlling the purse strings.

Enter Casper’s nine City Council members listening to hours of budget presentations at City Hall this week, preparing to approve public spending for the fiscal year that starts in July.

It’s a decidedly non-sexy task and easy to overlook in light of recent turmoil in the city manager’s office and at the police department.

Plus, when the budget process goes right ... it’s kind of boring.

“I’ll make a deal with you: If your presentation is 15 minutes, you get extra,” Councilman Chris Walsh joked to city staff before the presentations began Monday.

“You say, ‘I move to pass the budget as written’,” Meyers replied.

The proposed budget doesn’t call for dramatic cuts in personnel or services. The most notable aspect is the decision to spend down the city’s reserves faster than planned, which will no doubt be debated but to start means that the budget looks quite similar to last year’s.

“We want to continue to make certain we are delivering the services to the community,” Interim City Manager Liz Becher said.

Council members met from 3:30 to 8 p.m. on Monday, an hour longer than scheduled.

Then they met on Tuesday for a regular work session, again on Wednesday to discuss the budget and will meet for a final budget meeting on Thursday evening before staff takes their feedback and amends the document for approval next month.

Orienting City Council

The proposed budget, compiled under the supervision of the city manager’s office, is 371 pages. Simply bringing all the Council members — four of whom are going through their first budget session — up to speed on how Casper manages its money is a substantial task.

Monday was spent reviewing slides on the structure of the budget (“Putting the fun into fund accounting,” one read) and the restrictions built into the budget.

The city has 40 distinct budget funds, many of which are filled by the central general fund. But other funds, like those that pay for utilities, are self-sustaining and receive payments directly from user fees.

Some of the city’s revenue is fungible — meaning Council can direct staff to spend it on anything — whereas other revenue, like user fees, various third-party grants and one-cent funds, are locked into paying for a specific service by law or custom.

Becher started the meeting by dropping two large rocks on the conference room table at City Hall.

“This is a city asset from a city facility,” Becher said. “This rock.”

Picked up from the city’s Recreation Center by a few municipal employees fielding confused glances from passers-by, the rocks were painted purple with Council’s top two priorities as determined at a goal-setting meeting: “public safety” and “sustainability of assets and services.”

They are meant to symbolize the “touchstones” that city staff used to compile the budget — ones that double down on the consolidation of staff and slowing of large construction projects over the last year.

Reductions and reserves

In real terms, the city will trim its employee count by 17 to an even 500. That represents positions left open as part of a hiring freeze, minus the ones that the proposed budget calls for restoring.

Two years ago, the city had 564 employees.

Walsh, who has previously raised concern about the consolidation of city staff duties, said he was fine with some consolidation but that there needed to be clear metrics to determine whether a job needed to be filled or could be rolled into another position.

“Reducing the spot to give a stress test is fine, but there has to be a measure on how that did affect things,” he said. “I don’t believe those measures are there.”

Positions that were restored include two fleet mechanics for the municipal garage and several law enforcement jobs.

Becher said the hiring freeze will continue and that the city has approached the “practical limit of reduction to staff.”

She cited the consolidation of Leisure Services into the Public Services Department as an example of extreme measures taken to save money and warned more positions might need to be cut if tax revenue falls further than expected in the coming year.

“More drastic decisions may need to be considered,” Becher said.

The question of whether the proposed staffing levels are too low may come up again on Thursday, when Council offers its feedback. In addition to Walsh, Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay raised alarm over the reductions.

“Some of the feedback in, in some areas, it’s unmanageable,” she said.

In addition to cutting personnel costs, the city will be accelerating the “glide path” developed by former city manager V.H. McDonald before his sudden retirement in April.

McDonald’s plan called for using reserves each year until 2027, at which point Casper’s reserves would be just above the roughly 16 percent of annual operating revenue considered the minimum needed for cities.

But given weaker-than-anticipated sales tax revenue this year and an expectation that the state will cut off discretionary funding to cities beginning next year, the proposed budget significantly ramps up reserve spending.

Under McDonald’s plan, the city would not begin dipping into its savings until the summer of 2018. But Becher’s proposal would begin drawing on the reserves starting this July and spend $5 million in savings over the next 12 months. By 2027, the reserves would be slightly less than the goal of 16 percent.

“This budget is recommending usage of our general fund reserves,” Becher told Council. “With that is going to come some decisions ahead of you over the next few days.”

Becher and other department heads also outlined general efforts to bring down public spending, including smart collaboration between departments and stretching existing resources — including equipment — further before replacement or upgrades.

Mayor Kenyne Humphrey, who tends to be one of the more fiscally conservative members of Council, asked for her colleagues’ willingness to make cuts perhaps above what staff has recommended in its proposed budget.

“There are some things to cut,” Humphrey said. “It just takes guts. We have to see how much guts we have.”

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