The 2009 budget process is at the forefront of town business, but questions about how much the economy will affect the town’s revenue streams remain unanswered. Smyrna's Finance Committee met to discuss the budget on November 18, and is scheduled to meet again on Tuesday, November 25 to iron out a final version of the budget, including the tax rate, and recommend it to Smyrna Council.

With severe slumps in the housing market, on Wall Street, and now in the auto industry, economic uncertainty is probably the biggest concern facing the nation.

And it’s no different in the Town of Smyrna.

The 2009 budget process is at the forefront of town business, and questions about how much the economy will affect the town’s revenue streams remain unanswered.

After the Smyrna Town Council meeting on November 17, Councilman Gene Mullen said the Finance Committee would likely recommend that many of the town’s capital improvement projects be put on hold.

“You’re going to see probably the most austere budget ever seen in Smyrna,” Mullen said. “We’re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best.”

The Finance Committee met to discuss the budget on November 18, and was scheduled to meet again on November 25 to iron out a final version of the budget, including the tax rate, and recommend it to Smyrna Council.

Mullen said this recommended budget is scheduled to go before Smyrna Council for consideration at the December 1 council meeting.

According to Smyrna’s town charter, council must approve the budget at or before the second council meeting in December, which falls on December 15 this year.

Finance Committee considers ways to trim 2009 budget

Smyrna’s Finance Committee continued its work on the 2009 budget on November 18 at the committee’s second-to-last meeting before sending a proposed budget to town council.

The meeting was attended by committee members Gene Mullen, Valerie White, Art Ricker and Ruth Bower. Mayor Pat Stombaugh and Councilman Bill Raynor also participated in the discussion, along with Town Manager Dave Hugg and Police Chief Richard Baldwin.

Throughout the meeting, committee and council members suggested a number of ways to cut the town’s expenses.

“One of the things for all departments is to curtail overtime as much as possible,” Mullen said.

White suggested that the town cut back on personnel-related expenses, which include things like an employee Christmas party and sending flowers to employees who are in the hospital.

“I’d like to see all of those cut to some point,” she said.

White also asked about the tree-trimming expenses listed in the draft of the budget.

Hugg said the reason Smyrna’s electricity doesn’t go out very often is because the town doesn’t have trees on its power lines.

“If you want to jeopardize your services, cut maintenance,” Hugg said.

Hugg suggested that the committee could consider restructuring the hours at the library to make it more efficient.

“I think all travel should be cut out,” Mayor Stombaugh said. “If it’s cut out for council, it should be cut out of the town, too.”

Raynor said he liked the idea of cutting back to 2008 budget levels.

When the focus turned to the public safety budget, Police Chief Baldwin told the committee that the police had already made substantial cuts to the budget before it got this far.

“On some of the discretionary items, we’ve already done a pretty good job of reducing,” he said.

If more cuts were needed, Baldwin said the police would have to cut the department’s community outreach efforts, like the junior police academy.

Mullen recommended that the police also go without the two new police vehicles that were included in the draft budget. These new vehicles were listed as an $80,000 line item.

“The things you put off this year, are you going to put them off next year?” Baldwin asked. “These things are going to catch up to us at some point. There are consequences when we make these cuts.”

Hugg echoed this sentiment. He said old equipment and vehicles are less reliable and require more maintenance.

Ruth Bower suggested that the committee focus more on cutting the town services like the library and parks that are nice to have but non-essential.

Hugg said the town could do things like close the parks at dusk and not hire a new parks and recreation coordinator.

Toward the end of last week’s committee meeting, the Finance Committee seemed to agree on setting benchmarks for cutting the budget. Chief Baldwin was asked to cut $120,000 from the police budget, and Hugg was asked to cut a total of $240,000 from the other departments.

Ways to increase revenue may also be considered

“We’ve spent all this time talking about expenses, but not revenue,” said Art Ricker at one point in the meeting. “I think we’re going to have a heck of a lot harder time collecting what we’ve been collecting, even from those who can afford to pay.”

Ricker asked the others present at the meeting if the town was being conservative enough with its revenue projections.

“No one knows what the revenue coming in the door is going to be in ’09,” Mullen said. “If it doesn’t come in the door, we can’t spend it. We’re not the Feds. We can’t print money. I would much rather take an extremely hard line and add things through the year if we can.”

Hugg said the town could look at potential ways to enhance revenue. Some of the ideas suggested were increasing permit fees, establishing an application fee for electric service for new homes, or starting a town business license.

“There are places we could generate extra revenue,” he said.

There was little talk about the property tax rate at the November 18 committee meeting, but Mullen spoke in favor of continuing the town’s efforts toward balancing the general fund.

Council began working toward a balanced general fund last year, when it raised the town’s property taxes and simultaneously lowered the town’s utility bills for residents.

Smyrna’s general fund runs on a deficit, which is offset each year by profits from the town’s electric fund.

Hugg said that Smyrna currently has the lowest property tax, but also the highest utility cost of any municipality in the state.

Residents weigh in on budget at town council meeting

Two Smyrna residents commented on the budget issue at the November 17 Smyrna Town Council meeting.

During the portion of the meeting for public comments, Robert Novotny of Lake Drive West asked council to go through the budget item by item and focus on what is essential.

“What I would ask is for council and the Finance Committee to take an active role ahead of time and cut the budget as necessary,” he said.

Novotny said he has the impression that there’s a mentality of “We have it in the budget, quick, let’s spend it.”

“To me, that is irresponsible,” he said.

Another resident, Al Pickett of North Main Street, also recommended that the town tighten its belt.

“We have to really take a look at everything we spend,” he said.