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Council okays budget

Submitted by on 1, August 4, 2009 – 5:50 am2 Comments

Early this morning, the City Council approved a $68.7 million general fund budget balanced on $6.5 million in layoffs (and $4.4 million in prior midyear cuts).

The budget, which was $7.2 million less than last year’s, included more money for police and fire and a handful of additional staff (including replacement of an assistant city attorney laid off in June and a half-time library staffer to bring more public school students into the library). It also included raises for some city administrators (who are taking on additional duties) and the creation of new management positions in the fire department.

It also showed major reductions in the amount of money city departments owed for workers compensation and other “internal service” costs that for years had not been repaid to the general fund.

The new budget also heralded a reorganization of several city functions. The city’s Planning & Building and Development Services departments are being combined in the face of sharply curtailed development activities and reduced revenues; information technology takes on new importance (and gets more money for telephone and computer upgrades) in a move to the City Manager’s office.

Major funding sources including property taxes, which funds a third of the city’s general fund budget, were stable this year, despite declines in the housing market and the loss of the city’s remaining auto dealers.

The budget, which was over a month late due to economic factors and the layoffs and restructuring that followed, was supposed to cover two years. But Interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant said that with uncertainties like the state’s continuing financial problems, it’s too soon to firm up a budget for next year.

It did not address a provision in the state’s recently adopted budget plan that would take $5.3 million in redevelopment money over the next two years; the council will have to consider the budget impacts of that in September. But it did address the state’s plan to borrow more than $2 million of Alameda’s property tax money.

Gallant also said this year’s budget is no cause to celebrate, due both to the state’s continuing deficit and losses suffered by the state’s public employee retirement system that could lead to multi-million-dollar increases in the amount of money the city must pay for pensions. (More on those in a bit.)

The three-hour discussion about the budget included questions about the adequacy of the city’s fire staffing, which is set at 24 firefighters per shift but could fall to 21 per shift if the department runs out of overtime cash to keep the shifts filled.

Fire chief David Kapler said he used about $100,000 of the approximately $550,000 the city has budgeted for fire department overtime this year in July alone.

Councilwoman Lena Tam asked if other funds the city has set aside to study a new fire station should instead be used to bolster fire staffing. Other council members said they want to set benchmarks for what constitutes a safe level of staffing.

Gallant said she’d work with the city’s police and fire chiefs and return to the council with some ideas in September.

The general fund pays for services including public safety and parks. The city’s overall budget of $199.5 million includes the city’s Housing Authority, Alameda Municipal Power, Development Services and other, separate departments.

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