City freezes budget and looks for ways to save

By Alastair Baker
Thursday, May 31, 2018

Since the arrival of new auditors to oversee the Red Lodge City coffers Mayor Bill Larson and his staff have been working tirelessly to restore some semblance of order to the town’s financial woes.

Based on the recommendations from auditors Olness & Associates of Billings changes have been made to both the General Fund and the Resort Tax.

The new auditors explained to the City how the Resort Tax has been spent and transferred down the last 20 years, using funds from it to pay wages for employees working on Capital Projects and supporting park maintenance.

The City’s main expense out of the general fund is wages and with a “little jockeying around” said Larson, “the wages paid from the Resort Tax we redistributed.”

The present preliminary budget has been frozen with $100,000 earmarked for cutting and will include a new employee’s hours being reduced to 30 hours and one full time position not being filled. The Tall Grass and the Weed Program has also been rearranged to reduce costs.

“We had the option to cut this employee back to 20 hours but we felt to keep them at 30 and still give them benefits and us the opportunity to keep this person,” said Larson.

“We’ve rearranged some things and made a huge effort not to lay anyone off,” explained Mayor Larson.

Office expenses for both Larson and Rebecca Narmore, the City Attorney, have been halved.

The union wage contracts were ratified last year and a normal increase is already factored in rises and insurance.

The Resort Tax had been used to take up that salary slack because City Mills have not been raised in several decades “and pretty soon inflation catches up with you and this is where we stand now,” said Larson.

Another cost cutting system in place is departments now have to get approval to buy items. The level of purchase has to go through various approval stages.

DeNaye Kern, Deputy Clerk, explained an employee who wants to purchase something over $100 has to go to (City Clerk) Loni (Hanson) to get a purchase order number.

Anything over $1,000 has to be preapproved by Larson and Hanson.

“The City now has more control over purchasing. Anything over $5,000 and it must get the Mayor’s approval,” said Kern. Before this the approval came solely from the department heads.

“This way there is more control to see what is being purchased and to see if it is necessary and is it the best deal,” she said.

Now the approval process includes the cost of the item, its use and all details to make sure it is the right move for the city.

Purchases then have to be approved through the City Council and the administration committee will sign off on items.

“We have to follow NCA (Non Competitive Action) guidelines on purchases over $80,000, providing a bidding process,” said Kern.

“It’s not a big panic, it’s just a step back and a chance to reorganize,” said Larson. “It’s been good moving forward on things we’ve wanted to do, such as purchase orders. We really need to watch what we are spending.”

Larson doesn’t blame any previous administration for this saying, “It’s what they did back then. Now we need to move forward.”

The City gets approximately $750,000 a year from the Resort Tax with $250,000 going to water and sewer to pay off debts that go to 2044. A total of $82,000 went to Capital Project salaries. There are also lease payments for police cars and snowplows and other vehicles at $178,000 and 15 percent of the remaining $200,000 goes back to the public.

Larson doesn’t “think the remaining $80,000 will cover much.”

Expenditure from the Resort Tax from 1997 to 2017 amounts to $12,520,005.13 with Public Works at $2,963,978.59; City Parks at $911,251.20; City Pool $60,999.40; Water/Sewer Improvements $1,873,068.09; Emergency Services $259,743.23; Transfer General 15 percent $1,674,130.95; Transfer General 1 percent $111,604.26; Transfer to Sewer $2,240,000; and Transfer to Water $2,425,299.41.

“The wages and maintenance being taken out of there are now being taken from the General Fund,” said Larson. “Times are catching up with us, those taxes have helped us in those years and now we need to find funding for the General Fund.”

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