Proactive procrastination 

When Mayor John Engen asked city department heads to squeeze $1.7 million out of their budgets this fiscal year, every department followed the request. But to call the squeeze “budget cuts” isn’t exactly fair, says Finance Director Brent Ramharter.

“It’s more of a holdback,” he says.

In examining the cuts—or holdbacks—a trend becomes apparent: The city will save a significant amount of dough through proactive procrastination. Put another way, officials will put off until next year whatever they can afford not to do this year. 

The finance department, for example, will wait to fill two positions, as will the police department. The latter has an officer scheduled to retire in February and another in March. Those positions will most likely remain vacant until June, says Police Chief Mark Muir.

But not all of the savings will come through personnel. Parks and Rec, for example, is holding off on a $40,000 restoration of public restrooms. Muir’s department has also temporarily disbanded its street crimes unit, a pool of officers who don’t have to respond to service calls and instead use their time to address problems before crimes happen.

“It’s a critical tool for us to perform quality proactive policing,” Muir says. But this year, it’s going on the back burner.

Paradoxically, at least one department is cutting costs by hiring more workers. Fire Chief Tom Steenberg says his department should be fully staffed at all five stations by the first of the year, a move that will minimize overtime without cutting productivity. Also, the department managed to land a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which covers 90 percent of the salaries of all the department’s new hires.

Ramharter says the talk of cutbacks sounds worse than it is, mostly because city departments generally spend 3 percent less than they’re budgeted anyway. But this year, with the economy struggling and revenue down, the city’s asking that the savings be formalized. “We requested that offices say exactly what they wouldn’t spend,” he says.
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