It's budget season in Piedmont, which in my experience is one of the best-kept secrets in town. Maybe it's the distraction of the ending school year, our blossoming parks or ventures out of town, but residents just don't seem too interested in this annual rite.
I can't say I blame them -- as budgets go, Piedmont's is pretty tame. In good times, the City Council shores up reserves and undertakes overdue capital improvements and in lean times treads water with no service reductions. The fiscal year 2012-2013 was a good year -- property tax revenue up 5 percent, near-record transfer-tax receipts (thank you, newcomers) and a General Fund reserve of $4 million on a $23 million budget. So I'll spare the details and just give highlights of the 2013-2014 budget.
Administration: A budget increase of 0.7 percent, mostly due to a 12 percent increase in medical benefits and election costs. A downside of Piedmont's February election date is that when only city elections are held, the city pays the full cost of printing the ballot. Last year's ballot cost the city $11,400 because we shared costs with the school district and the state. The coming ballot will only be for city elections and is estimated to cost $95,000. The League of Women Voters was right -- move the election to the first Tuesday in November: much cheaper, bigger turnout.
Public Works: A budget increase of 3.7 percent, mostly due to a 10 percent medical benefits increase, an increase in part-time salaries and more consulting fees for the Housing Element. The Housing Element is a mandated plan showing how Piedmont will provide its share of low- and moderate-income housing for the region. State carbon dioxide reduction goals are also generating housing mandates for Piedmont, so zoning may become a future issue for the city.
Regarding the sewers, the good news is that the Environmental Protection Agency has approved the city's plan to annually replace 1 percent of its sewer lines going forward. The bad news is that the EPA wants cities to do more and is in negotiations to implement more reforms. Projections for the sewer fund show a deficit by 2015 (if we buy a $300,000 vactor truck), but perhaps by then the EPA will acknowledge Piedmont's long-standing sewer replacement program and relax some of the monitoring requirements of the current standing order. It seems the better Piedmont's sewers get, the more taxpayers are asked to spend on them. And streets will be repaved this year -- Cambridge Avenue between Grand and Howard avenues; Howard Avenue; Wyngaard Avenue; Inverleith Terrace; Glen Alpine Road; and the new Ramona—Ronada traffic triangle will go out for bid.
Recreation: A budget increase of 1.5 percent, but that does not reflect actual recreation expenditures. The Aquatics (pool) and Schoolmates (day care) divisions are administered by the Recreation Department, but their operations are not included in the overall department budget. Both divisions are in the red, which is a cause for concern. The pool is not unexpected -- the "two years of revenue versus one year of expenditure" model has finally run down to the red, with expenditures for next year projected at $725,000 and revenues at $575,000.
The pool subsidy for 2012-2013 came in at $140,000 and will increase next year. Schoolmates is more complicated. Recently a revenue source (a subsidy, one might say) for the department, it has run a 10 percent deficit for the past few years. That deficit mirrors a 10 percent increase in staff medical benefits. To address this deficit, staff is proposing a 50-cents-per-hour increase in Schoolmates rates, bringing monthly use to $7 per hour. That increase will avoid the need for a subsidy from the General Fund, but why subsidize the pool and not Schoolmates? Annual pool pass fees need to go up.
Police Department: A budget reduction of 0.4 percent even with a medical benefits increase of 16 percent. As a result of a return to full staffing, overtime salaries will decline with a net reduction in department salary. Of course the big-ticket item, license plate readers, does not show up in the department budget, as it is a new capital expense. The $670,000 needed for the cameras is proposed to be taken from the Capital Improvement Fund, which has a balance of $886,000.
Fire Department: A budget increase of 2 percent, mostly due to a 12 percent medical benefits increase. Of course, the big-ticket item, a new ladder truck, does not show up in the department budget, as it is a new capital expense. The $1 million needed for the truck is slated to be taken from the equipment replacement fund. The current truck is 24 years old and has not met safety standards since 1991. It turns out that the truck will be sold for scrap, so anyone who wants the ultimate play structure for their kids can make the city an offer. We'll even deliver.
Did I mention that medical benefits are up more than 10 percent? That is the biggest increase in the city budget and one the city has no control over. How Piedmont is going to pay for those benefits and employee pensions is being studied by the Budget Advisory and Financial Planning Committee.
Garrett Keating is a Piedmont City Council member.