Fire, police account for most of '18 budget

By David Showers
This article was published November 11, 2017 at 4:00 a.m.

The 2018 budget resolution the Hot Springs Board of Directors adopted earlier this week includes a $13 million General Fund transfer to the police and fire funds, supplementing the $6.7 million the half-cent public safety sales tax is projected to raise next year.

The city has said the transfer is needed to fully fund the departments. It accounts for more than half the adopted $25,160,128 General Fund budget, leading some on the board to ask if the public safety sales tax is meeting the needs of the two departments.

The Police Fund gets 60 percent of the proceeds, and the Fire Fund gets 40 percent. The ordinance that adopted the sales tax almost 20 years ago ensured the two funds would continue receiving General Fund support, sending annual fixed transfers of $4.8 million to the Police Fund and $3.6 million to the Fire Fund.

Even with supplementary funding embedded into the city code, the departments need additional General Fund support to sustain current levels of service. A $2.6 million transfer rounds out the $13.1 million budget the board adopted for the police department, and an almost $2 million transfer solidifies the $9.4 million budget adopted for the fire department.

District 5 Director Karen Garcia said police and fire's dependence on the General Fund, which makes up more than half of their budgets, shows the limitations of the public safety sales tax.

"We are not properly funding our police and fire departments when we have to transfer out of our General Fund," she told the board. "We don't have adequate funds to operate the other General Fund departments."

Garcia suggested at last month's budget session a ballot measure extending the 2.6 mills the board levied for the 2016 and 2017 tax years. The $3.2 million it's expected to raise over two years is supporting the city's Project 25 Phase 2 communications project, which will equip first and secondary responders with new radios and make the city a full-time user on the Arkansas Wireless Information Network.

The board approved a $4.9 million contract for the project earlier this week.

Garcia said asking voters to continue the levy beyond the 2017 tax year would provide money for unfunded capital needs, such as the new ladder truck Deputy City Manager Bill Burrough told the board it will be asked to fund in future budget cycles.

The list of unfunded capital needs also includes a new fire station for the southern corporate limits, but the fire department's 2018 budget allocated no money to its capital line item.

"I believe as a city we need to talk about better supporting our police officers and firefighters," Garcia told the board.

The 2018 budget, $113.5 million in total, includes a 3-percent cost-of-living adjustment for all of the city's more than 600 employees.

"I know the board truly understands the importance of remaining competitive in order to attract qualified employees," Burrough told the board. "From a management standpoint, I really appreciate that.

"I just want the board to know how appreciative the employees are. On behalf of all of them, I just want to thank you for recognizing that and providing a cost-of-living increase for the employees this year."

Local on 11/11/2017
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