|After 2013's frustrating budget approval process, the Galesburg City Council seems determined to make next year's budget decisions much earlier.
The Council held budget work sessions late last year - and after an apparent agreement had been reached, a crucial tax measure failed, forcing a back-up budget to be adopted instead. Aldermen will try to prevent that from happening to next year's budget by meeting regularly throughout 2014, with any luck, leaving plenty of time to spare before adopting the plan. Aldermen are already developing ideas they would like to see implemented into future City budgets. Second Ward Alderman Wayne Dennis tells WGIL he would like to see next year's budget approved by mid-October.
"The first thing we've got to do is get our pension funds caught up," says Dennis. "We're way behind on our pension funds and that didn't start with this council and it didn't start with the council before, I would say the pension funds got out of whack many council's before us."
The Council's first budget work session is scheduled for January 28th with the intent to review the "budget process." Time has also been set aside for: pensions, economic development, and taxes during future meetings. Aldermen have, in the past, held similar work sessions compared to this year's meetings in an effort to adopt the budget earlier in the year. Seventh Ward Alderman Jeremy Karlin tells WGIL that to make things different, the Council needs to prioritize and spend the first part of the year determining a long-term outlook for the City.
"The last couple of years we've done this in fits and starts," says Karlin. "We've had a meeting or a two-day retreat, as it were, but we haven't been able then to convert our discussions into specific goals that are articulable and marketable."
City Manager Todd Thompson is responsible for making initial budget recommendations to the Council, but declined to comment on the matter, specifically. Thompson has reportedly already submitted budget options to the council for review. 2013's budget was approved with expenditures of just over 90-million dollars. During last year's meetings, Thompson showed that Galesburg does indeed have a relatively low tax burden compared with communities of similar size, dividing revenues by population.
"It's a decent indicator of how we fit in," said Thompson. "In terms of the tax burden on businesses and residents in a given City, we're probably on the favorable side and that's where we would like to stay but at the same time we do have services to provide."
Among the concerns listed for this year's work sessions is the responsiveness of City Administration to Council budget change requests. In the Council-Manager form of government, City Administration brings proposals to the council who, in turn, request changes or in many cases give an up or down vote on the matter. Karlin tells WGIL there are ways to change the process, including how meetings are run.
"Rather than it being merely a series of speeches - which is pretty much how it's been - you know one person saying 'I will vote for this' another person saying 'no,' I think it's going to require us to allow for more give and take and more dialogue between council members," says Karlin.
Although the City Council is by law apolitical, philosophical divisions may prevent long-term goals being implemented for the City. Votes on tax measures were largely split into a simple majority during 2013's budget adoption process. Mayor Sal Garza tells WGIL he will handle the mix of opinions the way he always does.
"We don't allow one council member to basically overrule everyone else," says Garza. "We try to do this in a very mutual and [amicable] way to clearly understand that there are many perspectives, but in the end, we really have to come together."
The timing of the April consolidated elections may also prove problematic. Three seats are up for re-election and, if incumbents are unseated, may change the dynamic of the budget discussion. Garza tells WGIL it's something that will need to be kept in mind.
"We will have to pursue reaching that consensus on the front end because the City Council is tasked with giving coherent direction to the City Administration so they can develop options and hopefully implement those options per Council approval," says Garza.
Garza confirmed during one of last year's work sessions that the Council has the ability to request a balanced budget form the city administration. Going through line items and looking for cuts has been a popular idea and was circulated by several aldermen last year. When adopting next year's budget, Alderman Dennis tells WGIL aldermen can all too often be trapped their ward's interests.
"With seven people on the council, men and women, everybody likes to see things that are going to help their wards, but better than that you have to think about what is going to help the City," says Dennis.
Dennis says that he is on board with the idea of going through the budget line items individually while figuring out a way to prevent cuts in services. Much of the budget is earmarked for salaries and benefit obligations. Opposite the cuts crowd, increasing Galesburg's population will be first on the list for Karlin. He says he finds it hard to think of a problem that can't be solved by increasing the number of residents.
"I think the best way to do that is to see that what we're doing represents investments in individuals," says Karlin. "By improving the look of our town so that we're making good first impressions and by encouraging and incentivizing the businesses that are already here."
Karlin went on to say that everything from increasing the tax base, to utilizing Galesburg's infrastructure could benefit, but will require outside the box thinking.
2013's work session meetings are largely left open come August, giving aldermen the ability to focus on details premised during earlier work sessions. With unemployment at 8.2% for November in Galesuburg, and due to the current economic climate, Galesburg will likely continue a small operating budget deficit. Galesburg has reserves of $43-million in investment portfolios, a high quality credit rating, and relatively low debt, but according to Garza, the struggle with the operating budget will continue.