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Billings City Council passes 2021 budget expecting to use $700,000 from reserves

Other cuts expected in police, fire and parks departments
Posted at 11:54 PM, Jun 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-23 01:59:34-04

BILLINGS — The Billings City Council approved the 2021 city budget Monday, moving $1 million into the Park District 1 assessment from the general fund while splitting $750,000 in cuts between the police, fire and parks departments and using about $700,000 from the city's reserves.

One good note: the cuts won't force the parks department to close public pools at South and Rose parks or the Senior Center.

The council worked off the assumption that the upcoming public safety mill levy vote will pass, generating an additional $4 million for the city. If it fails, the city will use about $4.6 million from the reserves in 2021, according to the meeting agenda.

The council voted 7-4 to approve the budget consistent with the direction given to staff a week ago. The council also voted unanimously to pass the ballot language for the 2004 public safety mill levy repeal and replace.

Before the budget's approval, the Council discussed other motions looking to shift the cuts among different departments for about two hours.

One motion introduced by Council Member Kendra Shaw would have increased the money shifted into Parks District 1 to $1.7 million, enough to cover the dip into reserves.

The final 2021 budget includes a shift of $1 million from the parks department general fund budget into the Park District 1 assessment. This raises the taxes $13.77 per year on a Billings home worth $211,000, according to Andy Zoeller, city finance director.

Zoeller said the Council will have to officially approve the total assessment of Parks District 1 at its last meeting in September.

Shaw's motion was followed by a proposal from Council Member Frank Ewalt. His substitute motion would have made cuts to the fire and police departments. Instead, about $520,000 would have been taken from the reserves.

Both motions failed.

The department heads for police, fire and parks all told the council what would be specifically cut from their budgets in 2021.

“Belt-tightening hurts. No one is going to say that these cuts are things that they wanted to have happen," Kukulski said.

For the police, there would be $258,000 cut from the budget. Police Chief Rich St. John said four positions would be cut by not filling empty positions. City staff are still working to define specifics, but the city may not hire for four positions: three administrative assistants and one officer.

"We're deliberately working through what is the best way to (cut)? What is the least impactfull way to do that ... It's not laying off or losing a sworn position. We may, through vacancy savings, save some money there and thus, over time we will have four fewer positions," Kukulski said.

Billings Fire Department Chief Bill Rash said he could cut about $270,000 of the 2021 fire budget without eliminating jobs. Rash said the fire department worked with the city facilities director to see if the insurance company could cover $125,000 in deferred maintenance costs.

The 911 dispatch center is also part of the fire department budget. Rash said overtime would be reduced between the two teams to save $75,000.

"We would not have any effect as far as loss of personnel through attrition, layoffs. We would maintain our current level of staffing," Rash said.

In the Parks Recreation and Public Lands budget, Director Michael Whitaker cut about $160,000. The parks department will end invasive bug and flora removal, delay a website update and reduce forestry service contracts along with a few other cuts.

He made it clear that the cuts won't impact services and will not close the public pools or Senior Center.

“What we’re proposing will not reduce current service levels that we provide our community. But it will impact some of our programs," Whitaker said.

The 2021 Billings city budget isn't necessarily set in stone. The Council regularly approves budget amendments accounting for projects and other items throughout the year.

RELATED: Billings City Council exploring different cuts, shifts and reserve dips in the 2021 budget