City looks at tightening belt in new year

When the holiday decorations come down, the City of Fort Payne will face some tough choices to save on expenses. 

Once the season of holiday cheer ends, a stark reality awaits the City of Fort Payne. Look for serious belt-tightening to cut expenses. At a Dec. 16 work session, the city council reviewed the budget and discussed a variety of strategies for dealing with nearly a million dollar shortfall.

Mayor Brian Baine will elaborate on specific actions during a State of the City public address next month at the city auditorium.

Although no official action was taken at Wednesday’s work session, the council could vote as early as Jan. 5th to redirect some bond money to pay for a fire truck and slightly raise the price of some city services like sewer and sanitation.

The Council wants to avoid new taxes or layoffs and keep a cost-of-living step raise when addressing the $926,000 deficit. They’re postponing conditional capital items and pondering tough choices about city-owned venues that aren’t self-sufficient.

The public golf course at DeSoto Country Club, the Fort Payne Coal & Iron Building and DeKalb Theatre will all be thoroughly looked at to raise revenues and cut expenses.

Retiring employees may not be replaced and some people could be re-assigned to different departments. Human Resources Director Don Fischer said department heads were asked in the spring to identify areas where cuts could happen, but then revenue from the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown did not appear to be as severe as feared.

Council member Phillip Smith opposed redirecting $496,000 in bond money to help pay for a fire truck.

“You’re not just borrowing $249,000; you’re probably going to borrow close to $500,000 just to pay for half the truck and just to make up the shortfall for [the last three months of operating with a deficit],” Smith said.

“Nobody said they favored a 1-cent sales tax for us just to pay our bills. We got the bond money because we raised the sales tax. I can’t in good conscience vote for a budget that says we can’t pay our bills. For the last four or five years, this city has spent more money than it’s making. We don’t need to keep kicking the can down the road and avoid tough decisions because that money we keep transferring will eventually be gone.”

The $45 million bond issue raised funds for the new intermediate school. From the city’s $25 million share of it, $10 million was allocated for sewer improvements and the city earmarked $10 million in potential matching funds for state and federal appropriations toward building a railroad overpass estimated to cost $30 million.

About $1 million of the borrowed money was used to renovate the exterior of the police department and to buy land for building new soccer fields and property appropriate for future industrial development.

The council may take care of the immediate need while working over the next nine months toward a more streamlined 2022 budget.

“I think it’s going to take a year’s worth of looking and fixing a lot more than you can fix in the short period of time you’ve had [since being sworn in to the council in October],” City Attorney Rocky Watson said.

“At the end of your four years, you do want to be able to pass on a budget to the next bunch that’s positive. You’ve already got the debt. A fire truck is clearly covered by the purpose of the bond, which is to buy equipment and do major projects. There will just be something else you would have liked to do that you won’t have that money to do. We had 17 or 18 things we wanted to do with that bond money.”

Watson said the bond cannot be used to pay salaries or benefits, so using it to pay for new soccer fields becomes problematic if the city uses its own resources to save on costs. Three new airport hangars and 16 garbage roll-offs with a waiting list to rent will also make money, although not right away.

Council President Walter Watson agreed with Smith and has stated he wants the city to get on stable enough footing to create a savings account from which to fund future projects.

City Clerk Andy Parker said, “To use a paramedic metaphor, the first thing you have to do before you heal the patient is to stop the bleeding.”

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