CHAMPAIGN — Residents might start seeing the effects of service cuts, about which city officials have warned for months, as Champaign enters its new budget year today.
Budgeters battled the spending plan throughout the previous fiscal year as it became apparent that costs were continuing to rise while revenues were remaining relatively flat, and city officials recognized that cuts had to be made.
After months of trimming and hacking — and that is on top of cuts in previous years — the city council approved a balanced budget in June. But the service cuts take effect today, and they heavily outweigh the revenue hikes, such as increases in liquor license fees and a new natural gas tax. The tax is effective Jan. 1, 2012, and will affect about a dozen businesses.
Most of the immediate service cuts could have long-term impacts or present safety issues in some instances:
— Tree trimming throughout the city, for example, will be done less frequently after a trained arborist position was eliminated, said Finance Director Richard Schnuer. For the most part, that just means trees will look shaggy — but there is always the possibility that a rogue limb would fall in a traffic lane or on somebody.
— Public works crews will spend less time maintaining and cleaning sanitary sewers. Instead of examining all the city's sewers on a 10-year cycle, it will fall to a 12-year cycle.
"That might not seem like a lot," Schnuer said. "But if you were the person whose sewer backed up into their basement because the water can't get through, that's a big impact."
— Traffic signal maintenance, which had been a preventative program, will become more reactive. Crews will spend less time seeking out problems at lighted intersections and instead focus on fixing something that has already gone wrong.
"There will be more failures," Schnuer said. "Hopefully that just means that, well, people have to stop and figure out what to do before they go."
— The city also has a 20-mile backlog of sidewalks that need repair, Schnuer said. That list will start to grow faster — on Thursday, city workers were maintaining sidewalks at a pace of 7,200 feet per year, but on Friday they will have only enough time and money to fix 6,400 feet per year.
"I personally was lucky enough to notice one myself going down a sidewalk in a residential area that probably would have caused the bike to spill if I had not noticed it in time," Schnuer said.
— City employees will have to learn to get a few more miles out of their vehicles after budgeters reduced the amount of money that goes toward replacing those. That reduction will mean fire trucks and police cars, for example, will have to last an extra year or two and increases the likelihood that those vehicles will be out of service for maintenance.
A few cuts that have obvious safety impacts are still pending — the city plans not to fill two police positions when those jobs become vacant. Eventually, the department will be short an officer and a sergeant, who focused on special events and liquor enforcement.
The city council has said it wants to maintain three positions at the department's front desk, which had earlier been marked for cutting. Council members this month are expected to figure out how to pay for that.
Some council members have expressed interest in maintaining fire department overtime pay, which ultimately would keep a fire engine in service. Earlier this calendar year, council members voted to cut $400,000 out of the overtime budget, meaning a truck on the city's west side often would not have enough firefighters to run it.
Administrative positions have been cut, too. A worker in the city's human resources office will stop running an employee wellness program. While that might not have an immediate, direct impact, Schnuer said, the program was encouraging public employees to be more productive and lower the city's health care costs, a savings to the taxpayers.
A secretary in the city's legal department has been eliminated, and the hours of a paralegal have been reduced. It is another budget cut where the direct impact is not apparent, but legal officials review contracts, for example. With fewer people in the office, a contract might not get signed as quickly, meaning the road project it initiates might be delayed.
"They're not the sort of things citizens see on a routine basis, but they can often slow the departments on getting the direct services done," Schnuer said.
Unlike Champaign, Urbana officials do not expect the budget year beginning today will produce noticeable service impacts.
Mayor Laurel Prussing said her strategies in composing the budget were to take longer to fill vacant positions, not give raises and dip into the city's reserve funds to maintain last year's service levels.
Some recent changes to the budget included raising parking meter rates on campus from 75 cents to $1 per hour and Prussing's veto of about $72,000 worth of funding for tourism promotion. Both adjustments were aimed at paying for hiring two police officers.
The city council this month may consider overriding Prussing's veto of the funding for the Champaign County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The original version of this story erred on the status of a paralegal position in the city of Champaign's legal department.