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Local News

Joliet deficit budget eats into reserves

JOLIET — Joliet City Council members Monday took a closer look at City Manager Jim Hock's recently proposed spending plan for 2015, criticizing some aspects while suggesting a few tweaks to provide more police officers.

The overall budget runs a deficit while covering higher payments into the police and fire pensions, a return of the city's tree trimming program, and the hiring of three more officers for neighborhood policing, two sergeants and more public works employees.

To get there, the city will have to dip nearly $9 million deep into its reserve fund to balance next year's operating budget, Hock said.

The $279 million spending plan — which calls for no tax or fee increases — anticipates $163 million in revenue and $172.3 million in operating expenses. The city is using about $8.7 million from its reserves to balance the budget, bringing reserves down to about $44 million.

That's lower than past years, but keeps roughly two months worth of operating expenses on hand.

A little bit of math

It's likely the budget will be adjusted to include more police officers before it is finalized for the Dec. 18 meeting. Hock announced Monday that the city plans to hire three new officers for neighborhood policing and two sergeants.

For the first time in years, the fire department has a full headcount, so $600,000 will be cut from the department's overtime budget, Hock said. A good portion of that will go toward the hiring of additional police officers, he said.

District 3 Councilman John Gerl suggested the city could hire more police officers by pulling from the city's self-funded hospitalization and dental fund — a coffer he believes is overfunded.

As much as $1.5 million could be freed up, he said. The city spent $18.8 million in hospitalization and dental in 2013, and 2014 is on pace to be the same. Yet, the city budgeted $20.9 million in 2015, he said.

“I realize we're self-funded so that's always difficult to nail down. … But if you do a little bit of math, I think we're overfunded in this number,” Gerl said.

But the city's new finance director, Jim Ghedotte, cautioned against underfunding a category as precarious as health care.

"Everything can go along fine all year, but then if we have a couple of employees have some serious health problems, it'll affect the amount we have to pay," Ghedotte said Tuesday.

The budget also includes $150,000 for an inventory study of the city's building maintenance and repair needs and $40,000 for a study of city staff organization.

Garbage collection

One item that concerned Councilman Jim McFarland is the city's $448,000 subsidy of Waste Management's garbage collection services. The city's extended contract with Waste Management calls for annual 3.5 percent cost increases in 2015, 2016 and 2017.

“So instead of raising the rates on the residents, we're dipping into reserves to accommodate this increase?” Councilman Jim McFarland asked

“This year, yes,” Hock replied.

“But potentially in 2016, 2017,” McFarland said.

“We'll have to take a look at that. Otherwise it will continue to eat into the general fund balance,” Hock said.

$38,000 newsletter

One line item that came under fire at Monday night's meeting was the new, $38,000-a-year quarterly, eight-page newsletter designed to improve communications with residents.

Several council members, including McFarland, balked at the newsletter, arguing the city spends enough money on social media and keeping its website up-to-date. He said that money could be better spent elsewhere, such as cleaning up streets and entryways into the downtown area.

But Councilman Mike Turk and Mayor Tom Giarrante disagreed, saying McFarland is assuming senior citizens have easy access to computers.

Legal settlement costs

The city also budgeted $900,000 for settlement claims costs, up from $500,000 in 2014. Much of the money was budgeted with the assumption that the years-long Evergreen Terrace case — which the city won earlier this year — would be appealed by the housing complex owners.

Giarrante said Monday he doesn't think the city will have to spend all of the money budgeted next year for legal fees, and more specifically, legal fees relating to the Evergreen Terrace case the city won earlier this year.

“I'd bet they can't find an attorney to appeal it. They didn't pay their last attorney so I kind of doubt they're going to be able to find an attorney to represent them,” Giarrante said.

A public hearing will be held Dec. 16, two days before the council votes on the final budget at its Dec. 18 meeting.

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