Champaign strives to live within its means

CHAMPAIGN - The theme of the city of Champaign's fiscal 2003-04 budget is "serving within our means."

In more plain-spoken language, that means the proposed city budget isn't filled with dozens of new initiatives as the city, like governments across the country, struggles to present a balanced budget.

"It's more of a diplomatic way of saying we're keeping our expenses under control in these tight budgetary times," said Champaign City Manager Steve Carter.

"The direction of the city council has been that the staff take responsibility for living within our means and, if that means making some cuts, we'll do that."

The goal has been to protect vital city services, such as public safety and public works, he said.

Overall spending in the plan is $73.9 million, a decrease of 13.4 percent from estimated spending for the current budget year. Income is estimated at $71.1 million, a 1.6 percent decrease.

For the general operating fund, which pays for most city departments, income is estimated at $46.2 million and spending at $47 million. General fund spending increases by 3 percent over the current budget year under the plan, while income is projected to increase by 4.5 percent.

The Champaign City Council has already given its tentative approval to the budget. Final approval is expected to come at the council's June 3 meeting.

This year's budget comes on the heels of two successive years of budget cuts, including $700,000 worth of cuts during the current budget year. Nearly five city positions have been eliminated in the budget, reducing overall city employment to 469.6 full-time equivalent positions.

Among the positions eliminated were a principal city planner, a public education officer in the fire department and a police information resource specialist.

"The big reason the budget is still increasing is we have contracts with 4 percent salary increases and health care has gone up 7 percent," said Richard Schnuer, Champaign's finance director. "We had to cut back in a number of areas to pay for these things that are locked in."

The spending plan has a capital improvement budget of nearly $21 million, nearly the same as last year.

The capital plan calls for spending $2.3 million extending and improving Olympian Drive from Mattis Avenue to Apollo Drive, a major intergovernmental initiative with Champaign County.

The city is spending $3.1 million on the same project this year.

Other capital improvements include:

- Duncan Road would be improved from Windsor Road to a quarter-mile south with paving of two lanes and left-turn lanes and 6-foot-wide shoulders, for $665,000.

- Duncan is also slated to be improved between Interstate 72 to Springfield Avenue, with two 14-foot-wide concrete lanes, curb and gutters and a 4-foot-wide sidewalk on the east of side of Duncan Road, with the city cost estimated at $871,000.

- The Windsor Road and First Street intersection will be reconstructed, adding left-turn lanes and upgrading traffic signals, with First Street also widened from Windsor Road to the four-lane section, for $587,000.

Some major projects are getting some seed money in the budget.

The spending plan includes $1.63 million for property acquisition and design of a new public library.

The city doesn't have a plan yet to pay for the $15 million-plus cost of constructing a new library.

Assistant City Manager Paul Berg is looking at alternatives and is expected to go to the city council with funding options this fall, Carter said.

"The city council wants a project that lasts for a while and is within our financial capability and can also be expanded," Carter said.

The city council had hoped to open Fire Station No. 6 in southwest Champaign by this year, but those plans have been delayed because the city doesn't have the money to pay for an additional 12 firefighters at $1 million per year.

The city council this week gave its tentative OK to a plan to move a ladder company to the new station and hire only three new firefighters. The council also has earmarked $1 million in "growth reserve" funds for the fire station construction.

But the opening of the fire station is still likely a few years away.

The city also needs, at some point, to add a new public works facility, a project estimated to cost $20 million overall.

The city has $500,000 budgeted in the tentative budget and expects to spend another $1 million on a public works facility in fiscal 2004-05, Carter said.

Unlike the library, Carter said the city can probably do the public works facility project in pieces. A new salt dome will probably be built next year, he said, and materials storage facilities can be added over time, he said. He said the old Meadow Gold building the city bought a few years ago cannot realistically be renovated and the city will probably tear it down within the next few years to make way for an eventual new public works facility.

Carter said the budget crunch of the past few years is making for a bigger workload for some city employees.

"The city continues to grow physically, and that's put some stress on our public services: police, fire and public works," he said.

The city probably needs to add a fourth police district besides the western, northeast and southeast districts, Carter said.

"The western district is where the physical growth is, and that's put pressure on response time," he said.

"But if we add another district, we have to add police officers."

Carter said that when the city annexes residential subdivisions west of Staley Road, probably in a year or two, "there will be a very large increase in service demand" and additional city employees may have to be added.

Champaign currently has 149 police employees and 106 fire department employees.

Among the major income sources for the city, it is projected that sales tax growth will be 2.5 percent and generate $23.9 million from the 1 percent state sales tax and the 1 percent local sales tax.

The city expects to collect $13 million in city property taxes, an increase of more than $400,000 from the current year.

The city's property tax rate is projected to be $1.31 per $100 of assessed valuation, roughly the same as this year.

The city expects to collect $4.5 million in state income taxes, a slight increase from this year. This line item has declined significantly in recent years.

Other income projections include: hotel-motel taxes, $869,000; motor fuel tax, $1.9 million; sanitary sewer fee, $1.4 million; parking fines and fees, $3 million; utility taxes, $2.5 million; and telecommunication taxes, $1.7 million.

You can reach Mike Monson at 217-351-5370 or at mmonson@news-gazette.com.

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