Tuesday, November 21, 2017
News Roundup

Dunedin struggles to balance budget without cutting service levels

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DUNEDIN — As the city works to craft next year's budget, officials are finding that even the most basic departmental requests are threatening to break the bank.

With all the cuts the city has made during the recession, Dunedin finance director Karen Feeney says city officials are running out of options. The general fund budget alone has plummeted from $33 million in 2007 to an anticipated $23.5 million in 2014, she said.

"It is not possible to further reduce operating budgets without reducing service levels," Feeney wrote in a memo to commissioners ahead of a Tuesday morning budget workshop, "and some operational items that have been removed likely need to be reinstated."

Feeney presented a very preliminary working document to commissioners Tuesday and asked for feedback on her suggestions the city could use to balance the 2014 budget.

She said the city currently has $4.4 million in general fund reserves. City policy requires that Dunedin put a portion equivalent to 15 percent of its operating budget in savings; that would amount to nearly $3.8 million.

But if the city were to grant every item on department heads' preliminary wish lists, Feeney predicts it would draw the pot down by the end of fiscal year 2014 to $2.5 million, creating a $1.3 million shortfall.

The majority of wish list items, said Feeney and City Manager Rob DiSpirito, are required to maintain current service levels, such as electricity, insurance and fuel, or long-deferred expenses, such as a request for $100,000 in updated television equipment to broadcast City Hall meetings.

"In many cases, we have costs we can't control," DiSpirito said.

The city could use vehicle maintenance fund reserves to offset the potential shortfalls, Feeney said. The city has built a surplus of $600,000 by putting off vehicle replacements for the last five or so years.

In two weeks, the city will get the results of an actuarial study that Feeney expects will also reveal enough reserves in the risk management insurance fund to transfer to other departments.

Vice Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said she supports the vehicle maintenance reserves option. The program is funded by other city departments, which use their individual budgets to pay back loans they draw from the program when they need to buy or repair vehicles.

"We don't want to have chunks of money sitting anywhere when we have needs in other places," she said. "I just ask that it gets funneled back somehow to the people who paid into it."

The next budget year starts Oct. 1. Dunedin has three budget workshops set for July. Commissioners will adopt a final budget following public hearings in September.

In the meantime, Feeney said city staff will keep evaluating efficiencies and the possibility of increased costs for fee-based services. Budget planners also aim to end reliance on one-time revenues, like grants, in favor of sustainable methods that will help balance the budget long-term.

"One of the goals is not to cut service levels," Feeney said. "So it's going to be a balancing act. But when you've lost so much in your revenue side, it just gets harder."

Keyonna Summers can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or [email protected] To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.

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