PROVO — As the Provo City Council tackled the proposed 2009 budget Tuesday night, city employees had one plea: "Don't balance this budget on our backs."

At stake: Provo is facing one of its tightest budgets. Projected revenue sources for the 2009 fiscal year are down. At the same time, the city is experiencing substantial spikes in expenses such as fuel costs and employee health benefits.

Mayor Lewis Billings hasn't suggested tax hikes, but his proposed 2009 budget of approximately $149.2 million recommends increases in fees, including those for parking tickets and city sports programs. Billings also recommended Provo trim down city employees' pay grades and cut cost-of-living adjustments for the next year. He suggested Provo require city employees to start paying a portion of their health benefits,

Provo City Employees Association president Skip Tandy said city employees are "devastated" by the recommendations. He asked the City Council to find a way to retain employees' benefits, even suggesting an increase in utility rates.

"Nobody wants to think about it, but maybe it's time for a small rate increase," he said.

Provo Finance Director John Borget said he understands city employees' concerns, but he doesn't think a utility rate hike should be considered to fund cost-of-living adjustments.

"I don't think the COLA ... should be the driving force to raising energy rates," he said.

In recent years, Provo employees received a 1 percent to 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment each year, and the city covered the cost of health benefits. Previously, city employees could also qualify for a 5 percent step increase in wages each year for a five-year period, after which the step increase would scale to a 2 percent increase for the next three years.

Under Billings' recommendations, city employees' step increase would be changed to an approximate 2.5 percent step increase annually for 10 years, then scale back to 2 percent for the next three years. They would also have to pay $60 monthly for their health benefits costs, and no cost-of-living adjustments would be available this year.

But the recommendations, if approved, will have an adverse effect on the city's ability to hire qualified employees, Tandy said.

"People can go somewhere else and find a better wage," he told the council Tuesday night.

Sam Armstrong, a Provo firefighter and paramedic, said he knows of seven other firefighters and paramedics who have recently contacted Salt Lake fire departments about the possibility of lateral transfers.

"I'd hate to see Provo become a stepping stone for other cities," he said.

City Council members expressed some frustration with Provo's financial situation. Councilman Steve Turley said "I'm all ears" if someone had a suggestion for where they can find additional money in the budget.

City Councilman George Stewart cast a scrutinizing gaze over the East Bay golf course, where the city is planning to spend approximately $5.3 million for course improvements. If the city diverted the funds to other city projects, he said, it could cover a lot of ground.

"I don't want to cut roads, I don't want to cut police, I don't want to cut fire," Stewart said. "(The golf course is) one of the most glaring areas of the city, now that iProvo has been solved, that we have a deficit."

Borget said the administration thinks it's important for the community to have a golf course.

City Councilwoman Cynthia Dayton said she appreciates golf, but she wonders why no one ever talks about a recreation center, which would provide more services than a golf course.

"If we're talking about future development and future needs for the city ... are we missing the mark here?" she asked.

Borget said the city just needs to realize sacrifices have to be made during this lean year.

"We're facing the same realities as everyone else is," he said.

The council will discuss the proposed budget at the next City Council meeting June 17.

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