Salt Lake Mayor Palmer DePaulis' plan for balancing the city's budget that is $1.3 million in the red has sparked charges of budget cushions and slush funds from the City Council.
City Councilman Willie Stoler said he questions how the administration can find $1.3 million now, when no cuts could be made back when the budget was adopted last June without slashing city services. He said city bosses, through benign neglect, kept the City Council uninformed about potential surpluses within the city budget.The budget season isn't even open yet, but the mid-year shortfall already offers previews of the political brawls brewing between city administrators and the City Council.
"It was the opening season on posturing and feigning ignorance. It's going to be a tough year," the mayor said.
Proposed budget cuts to cover the mid-year shortfall created open season for an apparently hostile council, according to DePaulis. DePaulis will present his proposed budget in May, and the council has to adopt a financial document by mid-June.
But even while he's planning next year's budget, DePaulis has to get this year's red ink out of the city's books.
In January, finance officials estimated the city would have a $1 million shortfall because of soft sales tax revenues. Now, the shortfall has risen to $1.3 million, because, in addition, the county's estimates of the city's share of property taxes came in more than $736,000 over actual collections.
DePaulis presented a plan to cover the shortfall to the City Council. His proposed budget would cut $793,500 from city departmental budgets, then use $160,000 savings from paying off the city's telephone lease early and $400,000 of savings from the city's fleet maintenance fund.
DePaulis said he opted for those cuts, rather than laying off city employees or instituting a furlough program. Those ideas were dropped because of their impact on delivery of city services. Also, the city is already in the fourth quarter of the fiscal year and probably wouldn't save enough to make either plan worthwhile.
DePaulis said he considered using money from the city's surplus property fund or delaying capital improvement projects. But the mayor said he figured those plans wouldn't be very popular with the council.
By the end of the current fiscal year, there will be savings of $800,000 over what was budgeted for maintaining the city's vehicles, and he wants to use half of that fund to balance the city's books.
DePaulis said that surplus comes because the department is well-managed. "It isn't secret funds or slush funds or anything. It's just good management. It's savings from doing a very good job."
But some members of the City Council say a $800,000 cushion in one of the city's internal service funds proves there are other surpluses hidden in the city's $82 million general fund budget. An internal service fund charges city departments for goods and services provided by other city departments.
"The council, to my knowledge, was never informed that a cushion was built in," said Councilman Willie Stoler. "That makes me question how many cushions are around the city budget. To me, this gives the people who are interested in budget cuts more of a concern. It just adds fuel to our fire."
Councilwoman Roselyn Kirk said she wishes she had known about the potential surplus back last June, when she was trying to propose cuts. "I feel that we didn't force departments to cut as much as we should have," she said.
"They (the council) are feigning ignorance over this whole thing because it's a tough budget, and they don't want to be blamed with anything," DePaulis said.