Cheney general fund reserves running low
Bills for years of balancing the budget through general fund reserves are about to come due for the city of Cheney, the result of which may lead the city to asking citizens’ approval for other means of financial support.
City department heads outlined a rather grim budgetary picture at a City Council special budget workshop held Monday, June 16 at the Washington state archives building on Eastern Washington University’s campus.
In a brief overview of government accounting, Mayor Tom Trulove equated city accounts to “punch bowls,” each containing a number of straws drawing out revenue. While enterprise funds, which Finance Department director Cindy Niemeier said were “sound,” are replenished through dedicated user charges, the general fund — or current expense account — is stocked through more fluid means such as property and sales taxes and revenue from liquor sales and other state refunded means.
“It’s the one we seem to have the most trouble with,” Trulove said. “It’s a big one.”
When the recession hit in 2008, city officials decided to maintain levels of service for many departments without asking for tax increases. Any cost increases associated with those services were covered through general fund reserves.
According to information from the city, the amount of general fund money required to operate the city in 2013 is $4,378,841 whereas the average amount of available revenue is $3,972,700 — leaving $406,141 not funded. That amount was covered by general fund reserves, which left Cheney with an $808,000 reserve balance on Jan. 1, 2014.
The city needs to have 15 percent of next year’s expected expenses in reserve in the fund to cover any unexpected emergencies. That reserve would be $1 million in 2014.
The problem is revenue coming into the account has been reduced or eliminated, such as proceeds from the state for liquor sales — and what was promised by initiative for marijuana sales — as well as sales taxes from construction, and increasing property values from home building and purchase. Add to these the needs of departments that are fast becoming essential, and the council and citizenry likely face difficult choices soon.
The largest straw in the general fund is the Police Department, with 91 percent of its $2,042,530 yearly budget accounting for almost half the fund. Police Chief John Hensley told the council his main need is staff, at least one more police officer and preferably four, with vehicle replacement, technology and facility improvements not far away.
“The general fund isn’t going to be able to keep pace, it just isn’t,” Hensley said, citing the need for creating more sustainable department funding. “We have no contingency if something no good happens.”
At $872,693, the next largest straw is the Fire Department. The fire contract with Eastern Washington University and the emergency medical services levy account for 56 percent of the department’s funding, $678,157, with the rest coming out of the general fund.
Fire Chief Mike Winters said the biggest foreseeable expense is replacing the city’s main attack engine, which begins around $400,000 and could range as high as $600,000 for an engine built to city specifications. Other equipment needs such as new airpacks, turnouts and hoses are also needed soon, which could run an additional $136,000.
“I’d like to enhance services but right now, I just want to be able to keep my head above water,” Winters said.
Directors from other general fund departments such as municipal court, finance and streets all related coming needs to the City Council. For their part, council members listened and understood each department’s concerns, but had few answers.
“What I’ve heard today is there are some big dollar signs,” Councilman Doug Nixon said. “I don’t like this term, ‘we’ve got to think outside the box,’ but we do.”
Councilman John Taves said the council needs answers to questions posed to department heads about their needs, reminding members to focus not only on the short-term but also long-term as well.
“We need to share the decision making with the citizens, and educate them about the issues and create awareness,” Taves said. “We need to maybe get away from saying ‘we’re not going to decrease levels of service.’ My question is, are there some areas that citizens really don’t want that much.”
John McCallum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.