The administrative assistant position at the Astoria Fire Department will be eliminated in the upcoming fiscal year, if the city’s budget committee approves the proposal presented by City Manager Paul Benoit Wednesday night at the first of two budget meetings this week.

The position, held by Tara Constantine, is among many cutbacks the city is proposing to make in the coming fiscal year to balance the budget gap created by an increase in the Public Employee Retirement System rates and rising health care costs.

“Families across the nation and state are experiencing financial hardship. Our city of Astoria is as well,” Benoit wrote in his annual budget message. “With projected expenses in the general fund exceeding projected revenue, actions were taken to reduce spending. Those actions, combined with a drawdown in contingency funds of $69,440, produced a balanced budget,” for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

Here are the key points to know:

• The city has to cut $220,000 from its general fund expenses;

• Property taxes, which make up 66 percent of the total revenue in the general fund, will only increase by 2 percent this year, instead of the 3 or 4 percent increase in years past;

• PERS is increasing by $130,000 for each of the next two years, with expectations of another increase after that time is up;

• Health care rates are increasing;

• A 3 percent increase in materials and services costs is also anticipated.

To make up that $220,000 difference, city staff is proposing changes that include not filling the full-time cashier position in the city’s finance department, eliminating the full-time benefitted position held by Constantine, reducing materials and services in all departments, and reducing overtime expenses for police and fire personnel.

Unlike last year when the city spent $69,440 more than available in the budget, Benoit said he will not propose drawing again on the contingency fund to keep the city afloat at the same pace for the next fiscal year. Instead, there will be cuts for the budget committee to consider. Laura Leebrick was chosen as the chair of the budget committee, nominated by City Councilman Russ Warr.

“In the current fiscal year that we’re in right now, when the budget committee met last year at this time, we were projecting that expenses would exceed revenue in the general fund,” Benoit explained to the committee and city council. “We were upside down and the budget, that was balanced by the budget committee and ultimately adopted by the city council, reduced spending but also drew down from our reserves. We were borrowing from savings to balance our budget.

“This next fiscal year, again we’re in the same situation where our expenses are exceeding our revenue. The thing that is different this year is that the gap is much bigger, and it’s largely attributed to PERS.”

Initially all of the city’s departments will feel the cuts across the board. Aside from contractual agreements, all city staff will not be receiving their cost-of-living increases. Usually, staff is awarded a 2 percent raise annually, including Benoit, who receives his raise from the Astoria City Council. This year, there will be no raises awarded.

A new Fire Department contract has been negotiated also to reflect the zero percent increase, Benoit said.

“Our contingency, we’re projecting, at the end of the next fiscal year is about $1.4 million,” Benoit said, if the proposed cuts are made. “That’s about 18 percent of our budgeted expenses. Generally, you want to be in the 12 to 20 percent range – 18 is a good spot for this city, particularly with some of the emergencies we’ve experienced over the years. ... That’s healthy. It’s not excessive, but it’s healthy.”

The Astoria Budget Committee will meet again at 7 discuss the budget in the second part of its annual meeting. If all departments are not covered, a third meeting will be held next week.

The Astoria’ City Council will adopt the budget once the committee makes a recommendation.


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