WASHINGTON CITY – Public safety needs and employee retention were among the challenges city department heads shared with the Washington City Council Wednesday. It was a part of a special meeting focused on the pending 2017-18 budget – a budget that hasn’t necessarily grown with the population that demands services it is meant to fund.
“We do know that for some time we’ve been growing a bit faster than our capacity to keep up,” City Manager Roger Carter said. “And that’s some of the challenge you find with residential growth.”
Residential growth demands the highest level of city services, Carter said, while commercial growth does not. Residential growth and resulting property tax also doesn’t not produce as much revenue as the subsequent sales tax that comes from commercial growth.
Overall, Washington County experienced a growth rate of 3.7 percent in 2016, according to the University of Utah’s Kem Kimball Policy Institute. Washington City was among the county’s cities that experienced part of that growth.
That additional growth – which Carter estimated to comprise as many as 1,400 new city residents over the last year – has put the city in somewhat of a bind as far as making sure the services provided are adequately funded.
“There are pressure points for us,” Carter told the City Council, yet said the city would make do. It is what they have done year after year with the anticipation and hope city residents do not “feel the slightest bit of loss,” he said, when it comes to city services.
Washington City’s population stands at over 24,000, according to the most recent U.S. Census.
The tentative 2017-18 city budget sports a general fund of $15.8 million (around the same as last year’s projected budget) with an overall budget of $55.4 million. The rest of the budget is composed of monies allocated to internal services, special revenue uses, capital projects, debt service and enterprise funds.
The general fund is primarily funded through property taxes and sales taxes, with funds going to city departments that are not businesslike in nature.
On the other hand, proprietary, or enterprise, funds come from city departments that can be thought of as being run in a businesslike manner; for example, the city’s water and power departments.
A third of the general fund monies go to public safety, namely the Police and Fire departments. The chiefs of both departments stood before the city council and shared the challenges their departments are facing.
An issue the Washington City Fire Department faces is not having enough volunteers.
“We have a harder and harder time” recruiting volunteers, fire Chief Matt Evans said.
Out of the last two fire academies the Fire Department has held in the last two years, only two remain of the volunteer firefighters who graduated. Out of a current fire academy slated to wrap up soon, 30 applicants started and only 15 remain at this point, Evans said.
The Fire Department currently has 11 volunteer firefighters, but it’s not enough to keep the city’s two fire stations manned around the clock, the fire chief said. They may end up having to close one of the stations at night after the full- and part-time firefighters have run through their shifts.
The Fire Department is currently working with other city departments in relation to providing incentives for the volunteers to stay on.
“The challenge with incentives is: Does it really fix our problem? Or does it just add to the cost?” Carter said.
Retention is an issue the Police Department faces as well. Police Chief Jim Keith said he had two new officers leave the force within the last year. While one left because he felt he was unsuited for police work, the other returned to the construction field because it paid more and had friendly hours.
It wasn’t an issue of pay, Keith said, because the city pays its police officers fairly and provides great benefits. However, there currently isn’t a pay structure in place that encourages officers stay around, specifically those who take on specific duties or get certified in specialized areas.
“We need to recognize them for that,” Keith said, adding that the incentives wouldn’t be a huge amount of money but acknowledge it would nonetheless be a spending increase.
Another area Keith voiced concern over is aging police cruisers. At least three vehicles need to be replaced, he said. He would like to see the city set up a line item in the budget that would dedicate funds to the leasing of new police vehicles each year.
The growing population has also increased police work, the police chief said, making the need for new vehicles and keeping officers all the more necessary.
“We’re grateful for what we have, but there’s always a need for more.”
A need for more part-time employees was also brought before the council.
Barry Blake, director of Leisure Services, said his department has lost part-timers to either full-time jobs or other part-time jobs with better pay. Finding new part-time hires hasn’t been easy. In some cases, he said, fast food restaurants pay more than what the city offers as a starting wage.
Other items mentioned that the City Council will need to address either in next year’s budget or beyond included, among others, replacing aging electrical infrastructure and fleet vehicles.
“These are the needs that, if we can’t fulfill them today, we need to fulfill tomorrow,” Carter said.
The proposed 2017-18 budget is currently being reviewed by the City Council and will be presented for public review in a council meeting set for May 10.
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