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Largo annual budget is an exercise in expecting the unexpected

Unexpected things happen in life that put little dings in our wallets. Fender benders. Overdraft fees. You know, the usual.

But when you're a city, the dings can be a little bigger. Like $25,000 for an emergency methanol supply to feed nitrogen-eating bacteria.

In the past week, Largo has had a handful of unexpected expenses that have added small chips to the city's already stretched $130 million budget. Like fire engine repair, and even potential overdraft fees because of a payroll error.

So, the city coughed up $29,743.69 from its emergency management fund to pay for a fire engine's rear end to be rebuilt after it was struck in traffic. Because the vehicle is a front-line unit, the city couldn't wait for the at-fault driver's insurance to cover the damage. Commissioners approved the funds Tuesday.

On Jan. 15, an error prevented electronic paychecks from going out to city employees, and the city has volunteered to pay for any overdraft fees workers may have incurred. While many banks are waiving fees, the city might still need to pay some for being late.

And because of a supplier shortfall, the bacteria that reduces nitrogen in water discharge from the city's wastewater reclamation facility was running out of its primary food source — methanol. City officials were forced to find a new supplier, and pay $25,613.78 for three emergency shipments. Not exactly running out of Purina, but city-owned organisms still needed to be fed, or else the facility could have violated its permit requirements.

But, says city finance director Kim Adams, like a person ought to manage his or her own budget, the unexpected is expected.

"We do not know precisely what is going to occur every year. It's a balancing act," Adams said. "There's a lot of skill involved, and a lot of time involved. Being a very large budget, things tend to offset each other. Maybe methanol goes up, but chlorine goes down."

For many unexpected expenses such as these, Adams said for the most part, city departments move funds around internally to accommodate the extra expenses, rather than amending the city budget.

For instance, if a garbage truck blows an engine unexpectedly, rather than buying a new budgeted Dumpster, that money would be shifted within the solid waste department to fix the truck instead.

"We make as accurate as possible projections — not predictions," Adams said. "We've retired all our crystal balls."

But budgeting for things like wildly fluctuating gas prices, which the city must do on an annual basis, could very well benefit from sorcery to divine a price.

Try doing that at home with Quicken.

Last fiscal year, the city spent $972,384 to gas up its fleet. On Tuesday, commissioners voted to spend $1.1 million for gas and diesel fuel. The city doesn't have an economist on its payrolls, so city staffers must make their best guess as to how much driving will be done in a year, and how much fuel will cost.

"It's amazing how much traveling we do," Adams said. "You know it's not going to be totally accurate."

Dominick Tao can be reached at dtao@sptimes.com or (727) 580-2951.

Largo annual budget is an exercise in expecting the unexpected 01/23/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 22, 2010 6:10pm]
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