Simpson budget dips into reserves to avoid layoffs

Aberdeen Mayor Bill Simpson included no major cuts or layoffs in the 2013 budget he unveiled Wednesday night.

Simpson once again dives heavily into reserves, saying he just couldn’t bring himself to do any layoffs. Since first taking office five years ago, Simpson has prided himself on not making layoffs.

His $13.34 million budget cut about $160,000 from the original $13.5 million in requests from various departments, but that doesn’t include any personnel or major services.

Revenues coming in are expected to be about $12.7 million — which is an increase from projections of about $190,000 just two weeks ago. That still means the city will spend down reserves by about $652,000, leaving about $3.6 million in reserves at the end of next year.

The budget includes a 3 percent raise for most city employees and 2.7 raises for police officers and firefighters.

Aberdeen City Councilman Tim Alstrom was the first to sound off against the budget proposal Wednesday night.

“It’s not sustainable,” said Alstrom, who chairs the city’s Public Works Committee. “If we don’t correct the budget, the way we’re spending this year, we’ll need to do a lot more correction next year. … We either need to raise revenue or cut spending.”

“We can do layoffs, we can do furloughs, but those are things I don’t want to do,” Simpson said after the meeting. “Our only choice now is to cut services, and I’m leaving that for the council to decide.”

Aberdeen Councilman Jeff Cook and the rest of the Finance Committee directed Finance Director Kathryn Skolrood to look at what it would take to expand the city’s 2 percent utility tax to cable television services.

Councilman Doug Paling asked Public Works Director Larry Bledsoe about a possible franchise fee on the garbage services in order to raise more money for the budget. Hoquiam imposes a franchise fee, but Aberdeen doesn’t.

Simpson’s budget does raise property taxes. The city didn’t raise property taxes for the past two years and Skolrood said the city is taking that “banked capacity” and applying it to the city’s property tax rate next year. The result is a 2.97 percent increase to the amount of property tax revenue the city collects from residents, although because of variations in assessed values, that doesn’t necessarily translate to a direct 2.97 percent property tax hike for every resident, Skolrood said.

Simpson’s budget also raises utility rates for sewer, stormwater, water and even emergency medical services. Altogether, a $104.34 monthly utility bill today could go up $10.26 to $114.60, Skolrood said. But none of those rate hikes will help the cash-strapped operating budget, Skolrood said. During breaks in the council meeting, some council members and department heads were talking about the budget request made by then-mayor Mike Wilson back in 2002 when the city faced a similar financial crisis. Wilson, now a county commissioner, recommended layoffs of 13.5 positions, including three firefighters.

Instead of dipping into reserves by $706,000 to balance his budget, Wilson chose to do the layoffs to save $342,000 and used reserves to fill in the rest. He never had to do more layoffs after that, opting for the upfront cuts.

Laying off more firefighters is no longer an option for the city. Since those layoffs, the firefighter’s union negotiated minimum service levels. Simpson’s budget actually calls for hiring one firefighter-paramedic, the result of when Fire Chief Dave Carlberg retired last month.

Simpson’s budget does do away with a vacant corrections officer position. But it also includes hiring someone for another vacant corrections officer spot.

“If we don’t hire that position, we’ll be overwhelmed with overtime and so there won’t be any savings,” Simpson said.

Simpson said if the majority of his council directs him to make cuts in certain departments, he will sign the budget.

“If they want to make the choices, I will support their choices,” Simpson said. “I was on the council during Wilson’s budget. I didn’t like it. It did work. But the last thing I want to do is lay people off. I’m not ready to do that.”