On Friday of last week Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr submitted her Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposal to City Council. The proposed budget is an increase to recent years.
“The City has reverted significant funds in recent years to reserves at the end of each fiscal year,” said Orr. “We have been fortunate in that we have been able to weather the state’s economic downturn and have resisted using reserves to balance the budget. The standard budget presented to you does not use reserves.”
Orr believes she has “right-sized’ the budget.
“If we are continuously reverting unspent funds to reserves, which are already healthy and above statutory minimum, we need to take a deeper dive into the numbers. And what I found is that employee pay – fair wages – has taken a back-seat, sitting alongside deferred maintenance. No more.” Orr said.
Orr sighted three areas her budget addresses:
Under Orr’s administration, 95 percent of employees have been brought up to at least the minimum pay rate as determined by the Employee Investment Survey (EIS). The budget presented to council brings the remaining roughly 5 percent of employees up to at least minimum market. With only 5 percent of the over 560 employees now at or above the threshold, and a new budget that takes care of the remaining 5 percent, this has been an undertaking in fiscal management.
In her opinion, Orr said that “Public Works (Sanitation, Street and Alley) earned a Gold Star. Department head Vicky Nemecek has seen to it that every member of that department is now at, or above minimum, EIS. Through attrition and retirements, we’ve been able to increase hourly wages for our newest members of the team, as well as recognize and compensate supervisors appropriately.”
The outlier in employee compensation per the EIS is Youth Alternatives, far below minimum market wages. Orr recognizes this and is asking council to increase employee compensation within that department.
“Cheyenne is the only Wyoming community that has a program like Youth Alternatives,” said Orr. “This program is critical to being on the front-line to assist with on-site counseling to our schools in times of crisis, diverting youth from incarceration, and partnering community leaders as mentors to youth through the Special Friends program”.
Orr further said, “We must be either ‘all-in’, providing at least minimum to mid wage range, or divest the city of this program. I believe this is a service that works with, and not in competition, with our local youth providers.”
The FY 2019 budget anticipates a 10 percent increase in health insurance premiums.
“We learned from last year.” said Orr.
Last year at this time the city was faced with news that the current plan’s cost would skyrocket to a more than 60 percent increase in premiums.
“Those numbers were unsustainable. We had beyond a Cadillac plan – we were a Maserati – with zero-dollar deductible. That’s unheard of in even the wealthiest of private sector plans, let alone a governmental plan. We had to make a change, and fast. We had little choice at the time, but we listened, and recognized that employees need to be involved and informed in choosing an insurance carrier going forward. We established an Employee Benefits Committee this year with wide representation from employees, including council, to guide us in selecting a health insurance provider and plan(s) for the new fiscal year. They (the committee) have contributed countless hours, and I thank them. Health benefits are critical” said Orr.
Orr campaigned heavily on the need to invest in infrastructure, including that which the city already owns, but has not previously budgeted to maintain.
“We experienced a situation with a major water leak – a pipe failure — on the second floor of city hall a few weeks ago that shut down operations and dislocated employees. And there wasn’t a specified budget in which to draw from. We rob Peter to pay Paul when it comes to addressing infrastructure upgrades, and more often, failures. I am asking council to dedicate $250,000 a year in a line item account to draw from these needs” said Orr.
Second floor of city hall has the most interaction with the public with building permits, planning and development, public works, and engineering all located there.
“We can and must to better. We must – literally – be open for business to our business community. We need to address our facilities not only at city hall, but our fire stations and other city-owned buildings. We must be good stewards of all that is entrusted to us – and that means budgeting for maintenance” said Orr.
The Budget Process:
In recent years the budget was driven primarily from the City Treasurer and Mayor and conveyed down to Department Directors, then the City Council, in perhaps one work session and then the regular process of Committee of the Whole, committee meeting, and second and final readings.
This year, things are different. Orr tasked Department Directors to take charge of their budget and be able to defend it not only to her, but they must do so with council as well. And they rose to the challenge. Each department provided a “Standard Budget” which includes basic operating costs including staffing along with a “Supplemental Budget”, that requests for one-time funding above day-to-day operations.
“Much like the process of budget hearings on the state legislative level, I believe we can and should be deliberate. We are the largest city in the state, we are the Capital City, and we must not only have a solid process, but a transparent one as well” said Orr.
For that reason, Orr co-opted the state process and is having a two-week series of budget hearings that will take place nearly daily for two weeks. These meetings will be conducted department by department, in the way of “work sessions” with City Council. City Council work sessions are scheduled between 12- 1pm beginning April 18th at the Municipal Building (2101 O’Neil Ave.) in committee room 104. The work sessions will be streamed live on the city’s Facebook page.
“I’m looking forward to this new budget process. This will allow council time to digest the proposed budget and ask questions of individual departments well ahead of the legislative process. No one wants to dictate budget measures on the fly from the dais. This allows for very thoughtful, deliberative conversation, without surprises. We have much at stake with a positive financial picture ahead of us. We must be deliberate our finances and our future with a focused approach” said Orr.