Drawing kudos from Mayor Debe Hollingsworth and city council members, Finance Director Steve Miller and Pine Bluff’s other department leaders have combined their skills to trimming municipal expenses by $573,600 in hopes of averting a budget crisis this year.
The council’s ways and means committee — composed of Aldermen Bill Brumett and Wayne Easterly and Alderwoman Thelma Walker — approved the savings plan in a Tuesday afternoon meeting in the mayor’s conference room at the civic center. The fact that the reductions were figured in such a way that no employee furloughs will have to be considered during the remainder of the current year magnified the good news.
Hollingsworth said she was thankful, especially with the “bonus” of no furloughs.
“That’s something that I wanted to be the last possible resort, especially for our firefighters and police officers,” she said of the unpaid, one- to three-day furloughs that had been considered. “I’m totally impressed by how quickly and thoroughly Steve Miller directed this effort and how prompt and comprehensive all the department heads were in inspecting their individual budgets. They’re serving their public well and showing they’re sound stewards of the citizens’ tax monies. Everyone had to make some sacrifices, and I want to publicly express my appreciation.”
The potential crisis was made public last month when Miller told the mayor and council that steadily declining population and retail commerce have resulted in a decline of almost a million dollars in combined city and Jefferson County tax revenues over the past six years.
From 2008 to 2012, the city’s sales tax proceeds fell annually from a high of $7,489,559 to $6,915,378. Meanwhile, the county sales tax — which also generates revenue for the city — spiked at $6,441,335 in 2010 but then plunged to $5,778,284 in 2012. The projected 2013 returns from the two levies are $6,846,660 and $5,787,688, respectively.
While the city’s 2013 budget of nearly $27 million reflects a 2.5 percent increase over 2012’s, the anticipated tax revenue decline represents a 1.4-percent slump from last year’s total. Miller said at the time that a predicted financial shortfall of about 4 percent was figured by adding the revenue loss and budget swell.
After a review of the situation, Miller determined that the city needed roughly $577,520 in savings to offset the expected revenue slide.
Police and fire services — which have the two largest departmental budgets at roughly $10.379 million and $6.418 million, respectively — produced the biggest spending cuts at $192,600 and $127,497. Both departments will leave some currently open positions unfilled at least for now to help in the cause.
The road department — with a budget of $668,687 — gave up a $100,000 transfer from the city’s general fund.
Other departmental reductions endorsed by the council committee are:
• INSPECTION — $21,482.
• PARKS AND RECREATION — $21,048.
• CITY ATTORNEY — $16,156.
• EXECUTIVE — $13,804.
• ANIMAL CONTROL — $13,077.
• DISTRICT COURT 2 — $11,975.
• TRANSIT — $11,548.
• FINANCE — $8,040.
• COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT — $5,789.
• CITY COLLECTOR — $5,563.
• CEMETERY – $5,284.
• BUILDING MAINTENANCE — $5,200.
• HUMAN RESOURCES — $4,592.
• CITY CLERK — $4,500.
• AIRPORT — $3,573.
• INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY — $1,880.
The mayor stated her dissatisfaction with the budget processes of the past few years.
“As I said last month, I regret that our city is having to deal with this problem,” she said. “I continue to insist that it could have been avoided in large part. The revenue declines are nothing new, so the city’s recent annual budgets shouldn’t have been put together with unrealistic spending increases.
“I understand that it’s my job to help adjust this budget even though I wasn’t involved in formulating it,” she continued. “Again, a city budget can’t be a wish list. A city’s budget process ought to be done just like a business or home budget. You’ve got to live within your means, plain and simple. Our citizens deserve better with their city government.”
Brumett, the ways and means committee’s chairman, promised that the panel would keep “a close eye” on the city’s finances.
“We will monitor income and expenses and hold a review of the results for each quarter and make necessary adjustments,” he said. “With the current economic conditions, the city must control spending and only spend what revenue is generated.”
Brumett noted that the next review will be done in July.
Last month’s disclosure of the potential budget shortfall came on the heels of a CNN Money report that Pine Bluff is the nation “fastest-shrinking” city. The report also touched on the city’s ongoing troubles with poverty and high unemployment and crime rates.
Between 1990 and 2010, the city’s population tumbled by roughly 14 percent, from 57,100 to 49,083. The CNN report stated that Pine Bluff’s population fell a U.S. Census Bureau-estimated 1.5 percent during a 12-month period that ended on July 1, 2012.
Hollingsworth said at the time that while the account was “disappointing,” it’s also “a reality that we have to deal with.”
After Tuesday’s meeting, she seemed to be in a happier mood.
“I certainly don’t want many of the cuts that have been made in putting together these savings to become permanent,” she said. “But I think what was done today may be a good step in beginning to move this city to where it needs to be so we can start going forward to where I believe we can and eventually will be. Like I said before, we didn’t get to this point overnight and we won’t be able to fix everything overnight.
“I believe that what’s good and right about Pine Bluff is a lot more powerful than what might be wrong,” she concluded. “We won’t get anywhere if we pretend we don’t have any problems and ignore them, but we need to stay focused on the positive while working together to eliminate the negative. We may not be able to do it more than one step at a time, but as long as we’re in a constructive stride, we’ll be on the right trail.”