Budget workshop explores balancing Saratoga Town budget
April 24, 2019
With the current fiscal year drawing to a close, the Town of Saratoga has spent the last several weeks looking over the general fund in hopes of going into Fiscal Year (FY) 2019/2020 with a balanced budget. As was reported previously (see “Cuts coming” on page 16 of March 27 Saratoga Sun), Councilmember Jon Nelson informed department heads, Mayor John Zeiger and other members of the council that the Town of Saratoga had been overspending over the last four years. Due to this overspending, Nelson stated that cuts would have to be made based on previous expenditures instead of previous budgets.
April 1 budget
Since the March 18 budget workshop, the second following the initial March 6 workshop, the Town of Saratoga has held two more budget workshops and has another one scheduled for April 29. As FY 2018/2019 draws to a close, the council and department heads have had to make difficult decisions to prepare for FY 2019/2020.
Following the March 18 workshop, it was expected for departments to return to the Saratoga Town Hall on April 1 with proposed budgets that reflect the cuts Nelson had suggested were needed. This, however, had proved difficult for certain departments as they informed the council that they had already been cutting their budgets for the past several years.
Recreation Director Lisa Burton returned to the workshop with a proposed budget in the total of $138,000 for administrative expenses, $5,000 over the four year average. Suzie Cox, town clerk, explained that she had very few cuts to the town hall budget due to cuts from previous years. Saratoga Police Chief Ken Lehr also did not have much to offer during the April 1 meeting, telling the mayor and council members that he had been unable to find the time to produce a budget due to other work related obligations.
The one who came most prepared during the third budget meeting was Jon Winter, director of public works. Winter provided the council and others in attendance with a spreadsheet detailing the seven different budgets that were under his purview, including water and sewer, streets department and the hobo pool and had removed capital equipment expenditures from his budget proposal.
With little headway in terms of the budget on April 1, Zeiger proposed an additional budget workshop to be held on April 29 due to the fact that, so far, the Town of Saratoga had only discussed the general fund and had yet to discuss any enterprise funds.
April 15 budget
For the fourth workshop, Cox had produced multiple pages of budget line items for every department in the Town of Saratoga with numbers provided for the previous budget, year-to-date expenditures and the proposed budget. As the council members, mayor and other department heads gathered in the council chambers, work on the budget for the general fund began.
Under the planning commission, Councilmember Bob Keel stated that he believed it was appropriate to reduce the budgeted salary for a zoning officer from $39,000 to $20,000. Further discussion, however, revealed that former zoning officer Dan Ferrin’s salary was $50 an hour while Kent Smith, who had previously served in that position and is currently providing temporary assistance, had been paid $18.50 an hour. Cox informed the council that, while Smith was aiding the Town of Saratoga on an as-needed basis, he was being paid the same rate as Ferrin.
With the need for a zoning officer being made clear by at least two construction companies to Keel over the previous weeks and Keel being informed that Ferrin had only been able to work a total of 30 hours a month, Nelson quickly did math to give the other members of the council an idea of what the town could afford. The former planning commission chairman stated that, for approximately $25 an hour, the Town of Saratoga could afford a zoning officer that could work for 29 hours a week instead of less than 10 hours.
“Let’s put the number in and, if we’re way over budget when every other number gets put in, this is probably somewhere we can go back and say ‘Let’s take 9,000 of that number or whatever it is,’” said Keel.
Under discussion with the budget for town hall, Zeiger brought up the possibility of providing health insurance for attorney Tom Thompson in return for lowering his hourly rate to the Town of Saratoga. According to Zeiger, Thompson had approached the mayor with the proposition following his appointment in January, though no additional conversation had taken place.
“I’m opposed to it, I’ll just throw that out there. I think, as a consultant offering professional services, I think there needs to be a clear understanding for what your professional relationship is with your client. If his hourly rate is what it is, then that’s what we pay him to do a service, but to take him on to the town insurance is something I don’t think we want to make that exception for him or any other, somebody who’s not a town employee. That’s just a line I don’t feel comfortable crossing,” said Nelson.
Further conversation saw Cox inform the council, and remind the mayor, that there was a precedence as Thompson had been on the Town of Saratoga’s health insurance for eight years of Zeiger’s previous 10-year term. At the time of the budget workshop, it was unknown if Thompson’s offer was still available and so discussion continued.
For three hours, the council members, mayor and department heads worked through the packet provided by Cox and often looked to Nelson’s four year averages of expenditures as to where to set the budget on various departments. This led to some frustration with Lehr, as his initial budget proposal, which was just over $1 million, was tentatively set at $866,494. Nelson told Lehr that, while it was lower than the police chief’s initial proposal, it was still higher than the four year average in expenditures for the department by $44,000.
“We’re talking about allocating more money than you’ve ever spent in the last four years and every other department’s talking about cutting three percent, five percent. We’re talking about adding four percent,” said Nelson.
As the fourth budget workshop drew to a close, the council seemed confident that the revenue number they had set, approximately $2.1 million, was as accurate as they could get. Expenditures, meanwhile, were still around $2.2 million. The number the council tasked themselves with cutting from an already lean budget was $48,262.
It is expected that during the fifth budget session, which will be held at 6 p.m. on April 29 at Saratoga Town Hall, the council will cut the remaining expenditures, go through the enterprise fund and speak with Dennis Tschacher of ACM about the town audit.