Hard lines drawn for budget
Council members concerned by financial deficits and need for cutbacks in all depatments
June 27, 2019
At the final budget work shop, one pay period before the end of this 2018/2019 fiscal year, Moorcroft showed a potential deficit going into the new fiscal year, causing the governing body to look at serious immediate cut backs in all departments to ensure rollover funds for the implementation of the 2019/2020 budget.
There were several optional cut backs discussed at the work shop, a few of which were decided upon at Monday night’s meeting of the town council. Councilman Paul Smoot started the discussion of the incoming budget by expressing his displeasure.
“In my opinion, it’s not a healthy budget [and] it’s not a workable budget. How can you have a surplus of $11,000 on a $2.8 million budget? Seriously, I don’t know what to say. This budget says that not everybody was at the table in this discussion,” he said.
He noted that residents, “are paying some of the highest utilities around”, but, he went on to criticize those departments that refused to compromise for the greater need.
“We have departments involved in the city government who say ‘No, I want mine and that’s the way it is’ and I think that’s wrong,” he said.
Smoot commended the difficult decisions that councils have had to make over the last several years to rebuild the town.
“When you’re building toward the future and that’s what this town is doing, we have done some incredible infrastructure improvements on this town in the three years I’ve been behind this podium. This town has really made some dramatic, impressive improvements,” Smoot commented.
Illustrating the town’s actual financial position going into the new fiscal year, Smoot said, “There were times when we [his family] had to cut corners and eat beans and rice and do lots of things so that we could reach our goals.”
With that said, he reiterated his opinion that the 2019/2020 budget, “is not workable; we have $11,000 surplus – how are we going to survive a month – two months on that?” because not everyone is willing to “eat beans and rice”.
This worry was reiterated by Councilman Dale Petersen: “We look at where we are and the reality of the situation is that we have done a lot of projects here in town that had to be done and the result is that our debt load is relatively high; not only do we have the projects, we have all the other payments and that cut hugely into our budget so we looked at our budget and we come to the end here with $11,000, that is extremely concerning.”
Town resident Elise Hanslip questioned the police car that Chief Doug Lundborg insists his department needs, asking, “Can’t we use what we have?” Hanslip noted a couple of other points and she said she was offering options to “save money”.
The mayor, though, advocated the purchase of a new police conveyance as the department did not receive their replacement last year and the next scheduled replacement vehicle will go to public works.
Recovering the roadways through the Moorcroft Cemetery was one of Hanslip’s points and had been on the agenda for this fiscal year, according to Public Works Director Cory Allison, but that effort was one of the cuts made in the interest of saving enough money to seed the new budget. Hanslip said that she would rather see the road through the cemetery fixed than the sanded volleyball pit that is currently under construction at Robinson Park or the police department’s vehicle replacement.
Mayor Dick Claar responded by telling the audience that the new sports pit is “for the youth”. He explained his thought on the matter.
“If we could keep 15-20 students down at Robinson Park playing volleyball until 10 at night, it keeps them from getting into trouble somewhere else,” he said.
Claar also said that the town has to “create a reason for young people to want to bring their families here and the cemetery is not it.” He reminded Hanslip that the sand pit “comes from the third specific tax, it doesn’t come out of our budget”.
Hanslip asked the mayor if she and those with her “make a difference” when they address the body. Claar assured her that they do and that the governing body hears and sympathizes with their concerns; however, the decisions regarding what to cut from the next budget were not made quickly.
“These councilmen worked on this for [about] 25 hours, discussing, cussing and rediscussing”. They did not arbitrarily cut out the needed repairs on the cemetery, he said.
Bill Morgan, a business owner in town who attended to discuss what the town can do about the use of engine [Jake] brakes through town, agreed that the council is listening and holds itself accountable and Councilman Ben Glenn stated, “You guys do count, we try to take care of any problem that comes up.”
Claar explained to Hanslip why the answers she was receiving may not be to her satisfaction, though: “Your priorities might not be the same as those of the five people who sit up here.”
In the interest of giving something to the cemetery, public works plans to rock around the flag post in the near future and try to clear the rubble from the potholes; there just is not enough money to upgrade the roads, reported Allison.
With the concern expressed by his fellows, Claar expressed his willingness in the future, if needed, to uses moneys set aside for other needs.
“We put $25000 into ‘land closure’, which can be moved, we put $50,000 into ‘USBS’; there’s money that has been put aside that we call restricted funds that is above and beyond,” he said.
Among the items affected by the upcoming budget cuts is the vehicle replacement funding, which has been removed. This allowed for $3500 per department annually for a replacement vehicles; there will be no snow plowing of town streets on the weekend by public works this winter; town hall will not move to the MTC this next year and have cut their travel and training allowances; and the annual organizational funding for the museum, senior center etc. has been suspended.
Claar admitted that residents are not going to like some of these decreases, “but we’re not going to lose water, we’re not going to lose sewer and they’re not going to lose garbage.”
Petersen agreed, “There are some things we’re going to have to give up, some things we just can’t afford to do.”
Peck defended the actions of the council: “In 1998, I started telling the council that they were illegally subsidizing the water, sewer and garbage funds with the general fund, but it just continued because nobody wanted to raise utilities.”
Peck reminded guests that the water, sewer and garbage are all enterprising accounts that, by law, must stand by rates, not tax revenue, which feeds the municipal general fund. A healthy enterprising fund will be able to reserve annually 20 percent for the replacement of the infrastructure at the end of its 30-year life.
“Everybody’s really happy when their utility rates are artificially deflated and that went on for years and years. Now, 30-year lines are 40 years old and have not been replaced and start to fail,” he said.
He spoke with frankness to the people: “Are these guys to blame? No. Had something been done 25 years ago proactively to start building increases slowly but surely to build up reserve, the town could have had reserves available to pay for a lot of these huge loans that the town has taken out.”
Peck added, though, that Moorcroft is not alone in their efforts to fix old mistakes, stating that Newcastle recently raised their garbage rates 20 percent and their sewer rates 60 percent two years ago.
The audience responded by acknowledging the heavy responsibility and efforts of the governing body.
The council has also initiated a quarterly meeting solely for the purpose of evaluating the town’s financial position and prioritized goals going forward with the first being set for October 3 at 3 p.m. in the council chamber at town hall.