Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Gaithersburg budget talks begin without a hitch

Personnel, utility, police costs increase; most departments stable

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City leaders saw smooth sailing as annual budget talks began Monday night — a welcome situation after last year’s negotiations spiraled into threats of a city shutdown.

‘‘There’s no surprises this year — everything we’re talking about is what we discussed at the strategic retreat,” said Councilman Michael Sesma.

This time last year, Mayor Sidney A. Katz threatened to veto the city’s $50.6 million fiscal 2008 budget over a $250,000 line-item for a program to help tenants displaced by redevelopment projects. A veto would have forced a shutdown of city services. Ultimately the mayor and council added about $300,000 for the program, money that has never been spent, said Assistant City Manager Tony Tomasello.

Tenants displaced from West Deer Park Apartments last year drew funds from previously existing sources. To date no redevelopment project has demanded dipping into the money.

On Monday, Katz and the council kicked off three days of budget presentations commencing at 7:30 p.m. at City Hall.

Most departments met Acting City Manager Jim Arnoult’s request for a zero-based budget increase this year. Key spending items, such as personnel changes and a $150,000 housing stipend to draw about 25 city staff to live in town, have been presented to city leaders.

Big ticket items this year were salary, benefits and utilities, said Finance Director Harold Belton.

‘‘We still aren’t sure that we’re going to have enough in our budget for gasoline,” he said. ‘‘Since we started the budget process in January, we’ve seen at least a 10 percent increase.” The city’s police department budgeted an additional $40,000 in gasoline costs, for example, he said.

Police spending is proposed to increase more than 15 percent – or more than $1 million — as the department gets new employees and raises, upgrades training and acquires in-car cameras, rifles and six automated external defibrillators among other improvements, Belton said. Federal grants of about $117,000 will help add new technology, Councilman Ryan Spiegel said.

Overall, city personnel spending is proposed to increase by about $2 million, with seven proposed new hires, increased healthcare costs and merit and cost-of-living increases totaling 6.5 percent for nearly all city employees, Belton said.

The city has added $35,000 in stipends to augment salaries of employees who translate several days a week in their work, Arnoult said. ‘‘I think there is a value to having those people here,” he said, calling for efficiency amid changing demographics.

Discussion of the city’s public works and capital improvements budget occurred Tuesday, after The Gazette’s deadline.