While Tulsa may be years away from being able to return to the size of municipal budget it was able to adopt before the economic downturn, the outlook for the next fiscal year is certainly brighter than it was for this fiscal year.
That's the assessment of Mike Kier, the city's longtime finance director, who currently is at work putting together a proposed Fiscal Year 2011/2012 budget, which Mayor Dewey Bartlett Jr. will present to the City Council by May 1. The council then will have until June 30 to approve a budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
"This year's revenue is running better than we had originally expected," Kier said. "At this point, we expect we'll have some improvement next year. We will not get back to where we were a couple of years ago."
The current general fund for FY 2010-11 is $232 million, compared to $255.3 million in FY 2008.
Kier said it would most likely to be FY 2013 before the economy recovers to the point where the general fund is back to the pre-downturn level.
A slightly larger budget for the next fiscal year that is the product of modest increases in sales tax receipts means most, if not all, of the cutbacks instituted by city officials as cost-savings measures could be a thing of the past. Many of those reductions -- salary and benefits cuts, furlough days, reductions in city services -- already have been addressed, but others remain, namely positions in city government that have gone unfilled for months and months, Kier said. The administration will take a close look at that situation in the coming weeks.
Kier said he didn't know exactly how many jobs in city government are unfilled, but he estimated their number at several hundred, which would mean millions of dollars in salaries.
How many of those jobs wind up being filled remains to be seen, but Terry Simonson, the mayor's chief of staff, sounded a note of optimism at how much better the city's financial situation is now compared to a year ago.
Filling those jobs may turn out to be a priority for the Bartlett administration, but members of the City Council have some ideas of their own about how the money from the general fund is spent in the next fiscal year. Increased spending for public safety is at the top of their list.
"For me, the police and fire departments -- public safety in general -- is my big concern," said District 5 Councilor Chris Trail. "That's the No. 1 concern my citizens are telling me about."
Trail recalled a recent conversation he had had with a neighborhood association president from his district who was telling him about the sharp increase in break-ins residents had experienced.
"This was in a very good neighborhood and pretty much crime free," he said. "They're having an epidemic."
District 9's G.T. Bynum said he's hearing the same thing from his constituents.
"These are not neighborhoods that are high-crime areas, but they're so worried, they're talking about hiring rent-a-cops," Bynum said.
Councilor John Eagleton of District 7 said he is particularly concerned by the nature of the crime wave. Not only are break-ins up, he said, but many of them have taken a violent turn.
Citizens certainly have noticed, he said.
District 2's Rick Westcott said he heard from several constituents last week who had been victimized by car break-ins. When they contacted police, the residents said, they were told there was insufficient manpower to send out an officer to take a report.
"They're very fearful because they're concerned about what's next," Westcott said.
Simonson said the administration shares those concerns about public safety and said a police academy -- the city's first since 2009 -- already is planned this month.
But that's only a start, District 8's Bill Christiansen said.
"I know we've got an academy scheduled, but that's not even keeping up with attrition (at the police department)," he said. "I'd like to have an additional academy."
Simonson said the administration hopes to include the funding for that in the new budget, but he noted it costs roughly $1.2 million to stage each academy, in addition to coming up with the money to pay additional officers.
Both Trail and Bynum seemed to indicate they think the cost is worth it.
"The No. 1 thing the city ought to be doing is making citizens feel safe," Bynum said.
Trail noted the police department is 80 to 100 officers short of its authorized limit. The upcoming academy will help reduce that number, but he noted attrition will continue to eat away at the number of officers.
"We're losing a lot more than we're gaining," he said. "Keeping up with that should be a real priority for us."
Bynum lauded the job police chief Chuck Jordan has done of managing his officers to get the most out of them.
Just how much money will be available to meet the budget priorities of individual counselors isn't known yet, but District 1's Jack Henderson believes the budget approval process will be smoother this year than last year.
"I am hoping that it will," he said. "I have no indication that it will be gloom and doom like some people think it will. We'll just have to wait and see what we are presented with."
Along with public safety, Henderson's priorities include opening some of the community centers and public pools that were closed last year.
Eagleton said it's time for Tulsa to take care of its city employees.
"And that means all city employees -- public safety and Public Works," he said. "Everybody should be treated in proportion, especially in regard to those who made salary and benefits concessions. Hopefully, we can get some cost-of-living raises woven back in."
Christiansen noted that many municipal employees sacrificed a great deal last year to keep the city afloat by accepting pay cuts and furlough days. He, too, hopes to see cost-of-living increases figured into the budget.
"Even though people say inflation is low, I know the cost of groceries is going up," he said. "We've got to take care of the people who take care of us. I would certainly push for (COL raises)."
Westcott said he believes the city needs to take things a step further. There's a big difference between those who have chosen to make a job with the city of Tulsa their career and those who serve on the City Council or work in the mayor's office for two or three years, he said.
"I think those people who work for the city for a limited time period should work for a reduced salary because that is their period of public service," he said. "But those employees who have made a career of working for the city deserve to be paid the market rate for what they do, and none of them are."
Christiansen said another priority of his is seeing to it that the specifics of the PLANiTULSA strategic plan are carried out, including hiring a planning director and rewriting the city's zoning code.
Eagleton said he'd like to see additional funding for a project he has championed for years, the city's electronic citations program. He said he is awaiting new figures from the Police Department, but he believes the implementation of the system last year led to a "massive uptick" in the number of citations issued -- a change that saved lives and created revenue, he said.
Eagleton believes there's now a need for additional staffing in the prosecutor's office to deal with that increase in citations, as well as the purchase of new software. He'd also like to purchase more of the hand-held e-ticket units to give officers.
""I think every officer should be encouraged to issue citations when he sees one, but when it takes 30 minutes to fill out a citation on a piece of paper with miniscule writing, that's a disincentive," he said.
Bynum said his highest priority is for the city to maintain a sense of fiscal responsibility. He said councilors were told earlier this year by the administration that the city would face an $18.2 million budget shortfall because the one-time funding for so many programs would not be repeated. Some councilors considered that claim unrealistic, believing the administration's revenue estimates were too conservative.
Kier acknowledged that has been the case, to a degree.
"I think the council expressed some concern about whether that was a realistic number," he said. "(They thought,) 'Surely, by the time we get this ready and budget all this, that will take care of itself.' Some parts of it will, but I assume we'll still have to work with parts of it."
The actual size of the budget hole probably won't be known for at least two months, he said.
Nevertheless, from the standpoint of the finance director, it should be easier to project what the next fiscal year holds. If the administration's revenue enhancements were too conservative, he said, it was because the situation looked so bleak 12 months ago.
As part of his preparation for the budget adoption process, Bynum said he's asked the leaders of various city departments to identify benchmarks to show whether they're making progress.
"This is a fairly basic way to analyze budgets, and yet, it hasn't been done in the past," he said.
"We're not even telling them what benchmark to use," he continued, explaining that for the code enforcement division, it could be the number of citations issued, while for public safety, it could be how long a 911 caller waits before talking to a dispatcher.
While approval of the budget is likely more than four months away, Kier believes the chaos of the recent past won't repeat itself.
"I would say we should be headed toward a somewhat more normal budget process (than) two years ago, when we were working on a proposed budget that got revised before it ever even was adopted and then revised a couple more times. I think we probably can get by with just doing this once, if we do it right," he said, laughing. "Because we've been through so many reductions, I don't expect this will be a particularly easy budget."
Bynum said the council and the mayor shouldn't have as much trouble agreeing on a budget as they did in the spring of 2010. But with a general fund that is expected to be more than $20 million less than what it was just a couple of years ago, Simonson pointed out there still won't be enough money to cover every program councilors have in mind.
"At the end of the day, it's going to be about choices. We have to recognize we can't do everything," he said, adding that each councilor should be keeping a mental list of priorities and be prepared to draw a line somewhere. "Some things can be above it and can be done. Other things will be below it and will have to wait."
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