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Billings City Council approves 2020 budget, looking ahead to possible safety levy

Posted at 11:52 PM, Jun 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-17 14:48:42-04

BILLINGS – The Billings City Council adopted a 2020 budget with “minimal and moderate” cuts to the general and public safety funds Monday.

The council’s goal was to adopt a 2020 budget that minimizes the amount it will have to take from the reserves.

The trouble is a $6 million gap in expected revenues in the operational budget in the general and public safety funds.

Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski made it clear at the City Council meeting that the city will still be able to fund major capital improvement projects, such as the airport expansion and police evidence expansion, with a $6 million deficit.

“The capital investments have cash or debt set aside that will be a part of those projects,” Kukulski said. “There are no structural problems with the majority of the budget. It is only when you get to the area of the general fund and the public safety fund. That’s the place where you run into the structural issues.”

The “minimal and moderate” cuts, as described by city staff, will hit the Billings police and fire departments the hardest, as they make up 77 percent of the general and public safety funds.

These cuts include reorganizing payroll costs that were budgeted using old rates, eliminating the vacant position of Fire Protection Engineer, reducing overtime for the police and fire departments, deferring facility maintenance at fire stations and others.

There will be no layoffs included in either of these cuts.

The council also dropped a proposal to move part of the general fund spending into a parks district. This strategy would have allowed the city to fill the budget gap by hiking parks fees.

Some council members had questioned the legality of this shift from one fund to another to balance the budget. However, Mayor Bill Cole said he felt the plan would pass legal muster.

In the end, council members voted 9-2 to approve the 2020 budget. Cole and Council Member Richard Clark voted no.

Council members Brent Cromley, Mike Yakawich, Frank Ewalt, Roy Neese, Denise Joy, Chris Friedel, Reg Gibbs and Penny Ronning voted yes.

The cuts amount to $2.1 million.

The approval of the 2020 budget means the city is still expected to be short about $4 million in the general and public safety funds.

Council member Shaun Brown sees no way forward unless a public safety mill levy is brought to the voters.

“We’re going to have to do something next year,” Brown said. “I really want to make it clear that this is not a shim sham kind of thing. We’re not just out there fleecing the public. If we don’t do this we are going to be in dire straights.”

The Council did not vote on whether to put a levy on the ballot.