Council makes demand for services clear; revenue source uncertain
CHAMPAIGN — City council members on Tuesday night said they want to find new revenue to bring police and fire staffing back up and avoid a reduction of hours at the Champaign Public Library.
That will cost more than $1.7 million annually, and the source of that money is not yet clear, although it likely means some kind of increase in city taxes or fees. Council members on May 28 will decide exactly how they plan to raise that revenue before they approve a new budget in June.
Those three areas took hits as the city cut spending across every department during the recession. City officials say they are now in a "solid fiscal position" after several years of deep cuts, but it will take some new revenue if they want to bring core services back to their 2008 levels.
Police officials say they have struggled with manpower since they eliminated positions for six officers between 2009 and 2011. City council members will need to find $712,426 to bring staffing back to that 2008 level, and they voted 8-1 on Tuesday in favor of doing that.
Deputy Chief Joe Gallo said "proactive enforcement" has really taken a hit during the recession years.
"This is a significant problem for us because with intelligence-led policing we want to be smarter with our resources," Gallo said. "We want them to go out and work on problem areas, on hot spots."
City council members said they think the problem is significant enough to raise city revenues.
"I miss proactive policing, and I'd like us to start doing it again," said council member Marci Dodds. "It was just starting to get useful and effective and producing results; then the economy crashed."
City council members also voted 8-1 to find new revenue to keep a fire engine in full service on the city's west side. Staffing at fire station 4 would have been significantly cut last year had the fire union not agreed to reduce its pay to cover budget shortfalls.
That agreement is set to expire on June 30, and city administrators have said the union is not interested in continuing to cut its own pay to maintain staff.
But as in the case of the police department, city council members on Tuesday said they are willing to find $486,000 annually in new revenue to cover that gap. The extra money for firefighter overtime allows the department to maintain a minimum on-duty force when regularly scheduled firefighters are sick or on leave.
In a third budget request, Champaign Public Library officials asked for an extra $500,000 annually to keep the library open on its current schedule through June 2014. Library Director Marsha Grove said personnel cuts would otherwise need to be made to balance the library budget as costs continue to rise to a point where they cannot be covered by property tax revenue.
"I looked everywhere," said Library Director Marsha Grove. "The library board looked at the budget, too, and the only place left to cut was personnel."
That would mean officials would have to close the library for an extra 31 hours per week, split between its main and Douglass branches, without extra revenue.
City council members, however, voted 8-1 to give an extra $500,000 to the library annually to avoid those cuts in hours. That funding solves the problem for only one year as city officials expect the funding gap will continue to grow during the next few years.
Library officials will need to come back to the city council in six months with a plan to address those future budget gaps.
"With the $500,000, our library will remain the community center that people have gotten used to," Grove said.
Deborah Frank Feinen was the only no vote in three separate polls Tuesday night. Each time, she said she was not willing to raise city revenues without first looking at cuts elsewhere.
"I feel like we need to do our due diligence first and figure out if there are cuts available," Feinen said.
She said she is not opposed to bringing police, fire and library staffing levels back up, but "it's a disagreement philosophically about how we ought to pay for that."
Council member Tom Bruno said he is convinced that deep spending and service reductions through the recession have left no viable options for further cuts.
"I come to a conclusion that the community would rather come up with some additional revenue to solve these problems than to have their city government eviscerated any more," Bruno said.
Mayor Don Gerard agreed that core services need more revenue. In the case of the police department, he thinks people coming from outside the city likely will end up paying a lot of the bill.
"To me, it's not so much a burden but an investment," Gerard said.