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What City Controller Pat Roller thought would be a simple budgetary move turned into a dispute over city priorities and promises to constituents.
Despite that debate - one that lasted three weeks - Roller won preliminary approval Tuesday night when City Council members voted 6- 2 to approve moving $400,000 out of the parks budget to help pay for more firefighters.
"They're still getting $2.6 million they wouldn't have otherwise," said Tom Didier, R-3rd. "Fire protection has to be a top priority."
The debate began Feb. 11 when Roller asked for a package of $3 million in budgetary changes, most of which were approved unanimously with little discussion. But taking $400,000 out of the Parks and Recreation budget to increase the size of the new firefighter academy class failed 5-4.
Roller said the fire department believes it needs about $800,000 more in its budget, because officials forgot to account for retirements when they calculated how many firefighters they needed to hire. Firefighter union officials insisted at the time the budget was approved that the administration's plans would result in fewer firefighters on duty, but administration officials dismissed their claims as an attempt to prevent cuts to overtime spending.
Roller promised at the time to examine the issue and discovered the error. "It was just an oversight in the number of firefighters needed for the class," Roller said Tuesday.
Half of the needed money was taken out of the Public Works budget, but council members were reluctant to take money from the city's beloved parks system and the request failed.
Tuesday, Roller was back with the same request but got a warmer reception.
Didier and John Crawford, R-at large, pointed out that the $400,000 will come out of the additional money the parks department was getting. Thanks to an increase in the local income tax, the parks were going to get $3 million a year in additional money to pay for repairs and upkeep. That amount will simply be reduced to $2.6 million the first year, Roller said.
On Feb. 11, Roller said even the $400,000 loss would be partly repaid by $200,000 expected in interest on the money from a $30 million bond the city is taking out for road repairs.
Normally, the city's general fund could absorb the change, but in last year's debate over the income tax hike, the amount of cash reserves the city keeps on hand was dramatically reduced.
"We have so little cash I don't know how I can commit to an $800,000 expenditure without knowing where it's coming from," Roller told the council. The $800,000 will not be appropriated to the fire department until Roller knows exactly how much is needed and if money can be found elsewhere in the fire department's budget, she said.
John Shoaff, D-at large, said it would be better to wait until later in the year to see how things shake out, while Mitch Harper, R- 4th, said it appeared the move was more aimed at shoring up cash reserves. Both voted against the measure.