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A different take on safety 

Sexy, it is not.

The proposed 2012 city general fund budget, estimated at $224.6 million, sits a paltry .16 percent higher than 2011 end-of-year revenue estimates. It doesn't add services, and it doesn't take them away. Mercifully, it only kills off a few dozen vacant positions.

But get past the generalities, and this binder-thick bore has interesting details — flashes of insight into Mayor Steve Bach's priorities and strategies.

In an interview, Bach tells the Independent he wants to attract more businesses to the area (though, notably, he's not in favor of offering financial incentives). He hopes to invest more in parks maintenance, and to expand bus routes.

"I'm very concerned with people not being able to get to work, get to the doctor," he says. But that's not reflected in his budget — Bach pledged never to increase taxes, and his projections show the city drowning in higher costs.

"In a few years, our cost curve will intersect our revenue curve," he says ominously. "And we will have no reserve left."

The mayor seems to have adjusted his expectations. For instance, asked if bus service will expand, Bach says he hopes highly used routes could be improved, or the city could pay for taxis for the needy if it's cost-effective.

The mayor may be willing to penny-pinch, but he'll have to convince City Council, which approves the budget.

"There will be a temptation by the Council to increase the revenue forecast," Bach says. "Which I think is dangerous."

The budget today...

Actually, City Council President Scott Hente doesn't wildly disagree with the mayor's projections. But he is concerned about how the city spends money.

"[Bach] has knocked money out of the police department and some out of fire," Hente says, "which I'm not crazy about."

In the proposed budget, most areas get small increases, if any. But communications adds a position and 65 percent more money, to $414,285. Information technology gets a $1.2 million raise, to more than $8.4 million, as it updates hardware. The mayor also has created two departments: Economic Vitality ($311,500) and Innovation and Sustainability ($293,262).

Meanwhile, cuts of $2.5 million to police and $700,000 to fire are proposed. (That brings the general fund budgets for police and fire to $76.2 million and nearly $42.2 million, respectively.)

Staff shrinkage is likewise concentrated. Of 37.5 positions cut, 9.5 are from police, six from fire, 11 from Public Works, four from Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services, and four from finance. Most of the $1.1 million in "efficiencies" Bach has proposed come from police, fire, public works and IT.

"What we did is just go to the departments and say, 'What efficiencies can you find?'" mayoral Chief of Staff Steve Cox says. "... And in public safety, they were able to realize these efficiencies without affecting service or boots on the ground ... It wasn't like we said, 'Everybody cut 1, 2 percent.' We never gave them a number."

Cox says cuts largely have come from management and administrative services, and notes that both police and fire will have training academies in 2012.

...and tomorrow

That may alleviate some immediate concerns on Council, but there may be a bigger philosophical divide.

Bach wants to grow the city savings account or "fund balance." That account, about 15.9 percent of the budget by the end of 2011, is predicted to expand by $5 million by the end of 2012, to 17 percent of the budget.

"If it's just plussing up the reserve account for the sake of plussing up the reserve account, when there are so many needs," Hente says, "I'm probably not going to go along with it."

Hente doesn't mind a little risk if it allows the city to provide better services. But Bach is staunchly risk-averse.

An eight-year outlook in Bach's budget shows a measly 2 percent annual growth rate from 2013 to 2019. Most costs are expected to keep pace, but pensions and health care grow faster. The model assumes no pay raises until 2014, then yearly 3 percent raises through 2019. The emaciated budget for capital projects stays stagnant despite a $1.6 billion backlog in high-priority needs, including bridge repairs. City staff wouldn't grow; no services would be added.

Bach plans a salary study next year comparing city salaries to local salaries in the private sector as well as similar jobs in other governments. Though he's not planning pay cuts based on the study, he will use it to set salaries of incoming employees.

Bach says he'll also try to improve the local economy and add jobs, but without "revenue enhancements."

"He's not ready to go there on any of that until he's absolutely confident we've done everything we can with the current budget," Cox says of the mayor.

Hente, again, has to differ. He says it's impossible to solve the city budget problems without looking at new taxes.

"If we have an issue," he says, "we should address the issue right now."

stanley@csindy.com

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