In a cloud of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus, members of Saline City Council and key members of city staff came together virtually to start hammering out next year’s budget.
Treasurer Mickie Jo Bennett presented council with an early draft of a budget that collects $10,384,368 and spends $10,378,677 - leaving a total of $5,691.
City staff began working on the budget in December, long before the COVID-19 pandemic crashed into the economy. Even before the health crisis, taxable values were flat - bolstered by new construction. State revenue sharing was expected to be lower. Now the picture could be darker, with potentially less state revenue sharing and potentially some property tax revenue at risk
Despite the unknowns, the city must adopt a budget, knowing the factors could change quickly change.
The budget calls for the collection of $6,553,217 in property taxes, up by almost $200,000 from last year. In terms of expenditures, public safety expenditures would rise from $2,224,987 to $2,587,972 - the largest increase in any single department. Capital improvement expenditures would rise from $710,777 to $856,250 and public works spending would rise from $820,847 to $846,057. General government spending would rise from $3,702,372 to $3,886,955. One area where spending is down in recreation and culture, which sees spending fall from $310,000 to $#283,000.
The budget includes:
A cost of living wage increase 2 percent plus steps and longevity payments for employees.
$20,000 for technology to help the police department enforce parking regulations.
A $26,000 municipal building facility study.
$160,000 in improvements for Salt Springs Park.
$175,000 for the city hall parking lot.
$45,000 for improvements to a parking lot downtown.
Continued contributions to Saline Main Street and the Saline Farmers Market.
$146,000 for a wheel loader for the DPW.
What caused the most discussion was something that wasn’t in the budget - a human resources director.
“I’m very disappointed there is no HR director as part of the budget. At a crucial time with hiring and succession planning, this needs to be onboarded at this time. City Manager (Todd) Campbell spends an excessive amount of time on the hiring process and it’s taken him away from other important tasks,” Councillor Janet Dillon said.
Dillon’s comments were supported by colleagues Christen Mitchell, Jim Dell’Orco and Kevin Camero-Sulak. Creation of an HR position was a key recommendation of a 2019 study on the city’s organization. Since then, the city instead chose to overhaul its DPW and hire an assistant city manager (Mike Greene) to oversee economic development issues and help manage the building department.
Near the end of the meeting Dillon noted a majority of council supported the position in the budget.
“Is there a way staff can figure out where that would fit into a budget, and at what cost it would be to other line items,” Dillon asked.
Mayor Brian Marl said it was a discussion for council. And, he noted, it was a tight budget.
“If people are suggesting things that we add to the budget, I would suggest you propose what areas of the 2020-21 budget you would cut,” Marl said.
Dillon said she didn’t know what the position would cost and said if she knew, she would go through the line items and find places to make cuts. She then asked City Manager Campbell and the department heads to bring possible savings to council to make room for an HR director.
Marl said the position would cost about $150,000 with salary and benefits.
Councillor Mitchell said she believed council ought to have a discussion dedicated to the topic. She said that in the near term, perhaps, maybe an HR director is part-time, or perhaps working on contract.
Marl said he wasn’t sure how such a position could be funded on a right budget.
Kevin Camero-Sulak said council needed to look deeply into the idea.
“From a compliance and liability standpoint, it’s really worth it,” Camero-Sulak said. “It doesn’t sit that well with me hearing that we have to come up with $150,000 to rationalize this very important position for the welfare of our staff and compliance.”
Camero-Sulak told Mayor Marl he hoped he’d be willing to sit down and talk with council about the position.
“This is something we’ve done without for quite awhile with over 60 employees of the city. So I hope everyone will take this seriously,” Camero-Sulak said.
Marl said he was willing to speak about the issue. He also pointed out that city staffer Eleanor Getchman spends about 70 percent of her time working on HR issues.
The city’s three major department heads, DPW Director Jeff Fordice, Police Chief Jerrod Hart and Parks and Recreation Director Carla Scruggs, addressed council.
In a memo to council, Fordice explained the DPW originally requested more equipment and an additional maintenance employee. But the “flat growth” projection reduced the DPW’s ask. The big requests are the wheel loader and a fuel system for the DPW fleet.
What council members seemed most concerned about was whether or not the planned construction season can happen.
“Are the road projects moving forward,” Councillor Jim Dell’Orco asked?
Fordice said the Washtenaw County Road Commission is proceeding as if projects are going forward.
“They seem to feel that road construction is deemed essential. Our contractor and myself are not entirely convinced,” Fordice said.
Projects funded by the county millage, including the Keveiling and River Oaks projects, have already one out to bid.
Fordice said the city did not get federal funding for the eastbelt sewer system improvement, which would start in fiscal year 21 but mostly take place in fiscal year 22.
Chief Hart’s budget included four new FirstNet phones for patrol use, up to $100,000 for a new officer (but only if the department wins a federal gran)t and $20,000 for parking technology. Hart’s presentation also included discussions about things that aren’t being funded, including a police department workout facility, a replacement squad car, and a police captain or deputy chief.
Hart argued against the parking technology, saying it was expensive and also had a monthly fee. He noted that parking enforcement, before the court ruling against chalking tires, didn’t net $1,000 for the year, so it would never pay for itself.
Hart also expressed the need for a “second in command.” He noted the chief’s job was a “heavy lift” and overwhelming at times. The Saline Police Department had a deputy chief for many years before it was eliminated when Jack Ceo retired in 2011. He suggested that because of the current load, he’s considering suspending the Volunteers in Public Service program, concerned he doesn’t have the time to properly manage it.
When council began questioning Hart, talk turned to the SPD dispatch center. Council has twice considered outsourcing the dispatch work to the county level, but both times the idea was scrapped due to public opposition.
“It might be time for a serious assessment again,” Councillor Dean Girbach said.
Councillor Janet Dillon agreed.
Chief Hart noted that the department has spent 3,000 hours of overtime on the dispatch center. A veteran dispatcher is retiring this summer and Hart said finding qualified staff is always difficult.
Hart requested $28,500 for a gym in the basement of the SPD. That ask was reduced to $3,500.
Director Scruggs told council the recreation department was having a solid year until recently. Revenue was on target and expenditures were less than expected before the Rec Center shut down due to COVID-19. Scruggs told council the Rec Center plans to extend memberships for the length of the shutdown. She also said she expects revenue to take a hit because less people will sign up for summer programs, like kids’ camp and swim and tennis lessons. The Rec Center could also see a slide in membership sales. As it is, the recreation department is using $127,523 from its fund balance to maintain its budget.
Council will discuss the budget at its work meeting beginning at 6 p.m. Monday.