A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

This budget story saves you some time

Written May 7th, 2021 by Hasso Hering

Albany’s city budget committee and staff met via Zoom on Thursday.

Budget discussions can make your eyes glaze over, as they did mine as I was trying to follow the city of Albany’s budget committee on Zoom Thursday night. But I came away with a few key points that may affect people living in town.

For instance, the committee voted to recommend that the council find new revenue to support city services. This means a services utility fee or tax — probably $9 per household per month — that the council will almost certainly adopt. Of the council members on the budget panel, only Matilda Novak pushed back on this idea, saying there was no way she could support it unless it’s put to a vote of the people.

The committee approved the proposed biennial budget for 2021-23 and sent it to the council.  Among the details in its 592 pages:

— At $348 million, the plan is down 2 percent from the current biennium.

— City employees number 404 FTEs (full-time equivalents) in the first year and 402 in the second, down 14 from the current staffing level.

— The police lose two positions the first year, another two the following year, to end up with 89 FTEs.

— The fire department loses 11 positions this year, including six firefighters/EMTs, and ends up with just under 79 FTEs.  Councilman Dick Olsen worried that this would close fire stations in North Albany and east of I-5. The fire chief said stations would not be closed but be staffed by fewer people, which means longer response times.

— In parks and recreation, the FTE number goes from almost 31 now to about 28. In the libraries, there’s a staffing drop from 21 to 19.

— The budget calls for levying $67.5 million in city property taxes over two years, up about 3 percent. Other revenue supports the bulk of the overall budget.

If there’s additional revenue, some of the reductions in the plan would not be carried out. In the discussion about that, the question of salaries and benefits came up. The budget says citywide, average personnel costs break down this way: Wages 55 percent, PERS retirement costs 19 percent, employee health insurance 18 percent, and other benefits 8 percent.

Police and fire services together cost about $72 million over the two budget years. The committee was told that under state law, the city has little control over personnel costs in those departments. The law bars police and fire personnel from striking if there’s an impasse in negotiations, but in return it gives arbitrators the power to set contract terms based on the unions’ last offer.

You can listen to the budget committee session on the city’s website. It takes two hours, not the few minutes you spent here. (hh)

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18 responses to “This budget story saves you some time”

  1. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    A “fee” is for a specific use. In other words, if you use a specific service or product provided by the city, you pay the fee. Think water & sewer. Think garbage disposal.

    This “fee” is nothing more than a back-door tax. The funds are not specific to water service. It is a flat charge that goes into the general fund and are co-mingled with property taxes.

    The property tax rate was approved by voters. This “fee” evidently will not be.

    The city council should not have the power to IMPOSE a back-door tax.

    Albany residents need to change the city’s charter and take back the power to approve, or disapprove, increased and new “fees.”

  2. Jack Johnny JJ Jimbo Johnny Hartman says:

    What this budgeting process doesn’t reveals is, what are the actual costs associated with staffing reductions. All we see is that City Department X will lose 2-positions, etcetera. However, if the City has lost 14 FTEs in this biennium, no credible sources have reported on the alleged severity as a result of the cut in the number of FTE positions. Anecdotally, it would seem that the loss of 14 FTE positions has not had any significant deleterious effect. So, how is the average citizen supposed to interpret this information?

  3. James Engel says:

    Thanks for the “Readers Digest” form of the budget….>)

  4. Steve Reynolds says:

    I disagree HH, it was very interesting, it’s like reading a mystery and trying to figure out the puzzle.

    Three parts I found most intriguing…

    1) The committee members acknowledging that the budget is too complicated to understand but the city staff said it was balanced, so that’s all they needed in order to recommend it to city council.

    2) City Manager acknowledging that the budget is too complicated for even an exceptional person to understand. I think he was trying to say there is no one person that is the overseer, it’s like the Federalist Papers, it’s a group of different people all with their own expertise in different areas and then it’s brought together in a collection of documents.

    and the most interesting…

    3) City Manager telling the committee don’t just make changes on the edges, if you’re going to make a change, make major changes. I’m very curious to know where he was going with this thought.

    We can spend hours going over this, another notable highlight was the mayor trying to get his head around personnel costs for a certain department because of major spikes in expense, and after staff trying to explain it finally telling him, it’s really complicated and then the mayor backing down and saying, Ok I’ll try to figure it out. You could tell he didn’t want to take up a lot time trying to drill down for the answer but he also wasn’t comfortable with the explanation. I’m not going to get into line items like why are we paying $92k in PERS and $92K in medical to a pre-school (even though it’s GAPS reimbursed, as you all know it’s all on one bill for us)? But those are the types of numbers we should be asking about.

    This is really interesting stuff people, you should listen and ask questions, it’s going to affect your family, it really is. Here is the bottom line, ($348m/2) / 54,000 = $3222 per resident or $268 a month in revenue obligation for each Albany resident and that number IS going to go up as HH pointed out. Some will obviously pay more than others, I guess each family has to now to go back to their budget kitchen table and figure out what family departments to pull funding from in order to meet these additional revenue obligations. Maybe we should have public budget meetings at some of the Albany resident homes, see what they go through when they try and adopt their budgets.

    • Bob Woods says:

      It is complicated, but it’s not a mystery. It’s all there for people to see, but you need to learn things because of what the law requires.

      It’s not one big pot of money. Utility “funds” (an accounting term that means a stand alone business entity) like Water, Sewer and Stormwater are some of the separate “businesses” within the budget. The money they collect goes to their operations. Within those operations the books must balance – Revenue, Expenditures, Reserves. They, and other city operations, “purchase” services from the Finance Department, Personnel, City Manager etc. so that they share in the cost of providing those administrative services. This segregation of accounting is required by state law and national accounting principles.

      All departments pay their share so that when you see those departments you see the total cost of their operations.

      The General Fund is where your property tax monies go. Virtually ALL of those taxes that go to the City pay for Police and Fire (full overview of Property Taxes: https://www.cityofalbany.net/data/propertytax ).

      Yes the budget is hard, and it’s why elected officials have to learn the in’s and out’s to protect your interests. When you’re new it takes a lot of work.

      But you also need to know that Albany’s budget and financial reports have been certified, for what is now probably over 30+ years, for their accuracy and completeness. The city is audited ANNUALLY to protect your interests.

      Feel free to argue over where you think your money should be allocated, be it Parks, Police, Seniors, Libraries, Streets or wherever you think.

      It is YOUR government.

      • Gordon L. Shadle says:

        “It’s not one big pot of money. Utility “funds” (an accounting term that means a stand alone business entity) like Water, Sewer and Stormwater are some of the separate “businesses” within the budget.”

        So enlighten us Woods, this new “fee” is not for water, sewer, or stormwater, although that is where the people will see the charge. As Hasso points out, the “fee” revenue will is for general services and will be co-mingled with property tax revenues in the general fund.

        In regards to this new tax…..er…..fee….it is one pot of general fund money, not a utility “fund.”

        Back door tax…eh?

        • Bob Woods says:

          When you have an existing billing system, it is a lot cheaper to use that same billing system to collect a new fee than creating a whole new billing system sending out it’s own bills. Saves time and money. The existing bills all show the separate charges for Water, Sewer, et cetera.

          Don’t reinvent the wheel.

    • Bob Woods says:

      About your point #3, you’re computation per resident is grossly misleading, because you don’t account for other revenues like water/sewer charges and property taxes paid by major industries and every business located in town. Ditto for building & development fees paid by developers and construction companies; franchise fees for use of public right-of-way by Comcast and others; revenues sent to the city by the state such as gas taxes; federal and other grants; transient lodging taxes paid by motel/hotel guests; fines paid by law breakers and more.

      • Steve Reynolds says:

        I didn’t realize there was so many different ways to tax just in our little, local government.

        No offense Bob but it really seems like you don’t believe, we as the public, are capable enough to understand how our local government works. Just an FYI, you come across a a wee bit condescending.

        All I know is it seems we’re spending twice as much money as the money coming in and the increase in most of the money coming in is pretty much capped because of certain laws which the citizens of Oregon wanted. I don’t know how long we can keep going without adding some other way of collecting taxes outside of what is allowed to be collected.

  5. Albany YIMBY says:

    You know, for having 89 FTE I’d really like to see more police presence on the streets, walking, getting to know their communities and neighbors.

    I think police dehumanize citizens when they just patrol with their cars and respond to calls. Albany could be split into 10 zones, that could be easy to walk or patrol with electric scooters. Police could chat with passers by and hear from neighbor concerns. They could also establish safe routes and intersections so kids can walk to school by themselves.

    I am not against the police, but they don’t really do a good job to show up and be visible in the community.

  6. birdieken says:

    Police and fire is 72 million and has around 170 people that equals $423,529.00 multiplied by .55(% employees wages) is $232,941.00 for salaries of 170 people? Maybe the council could hire someone not paid by the city to translate the budget to them?

    • Gordon L. Shadle says:

      Or consider contracting out law enforcement to Linn County. I bet the city could save millions.

      Other cities have done this.

      Has Albany staff even contacted the county to determine if a savings opportunity exists?

    • Birdieken says:

      $233,000 for two years or 116,500 per year. My point was numbers are just numbers unless put in context.

  7. James Engel says:

    All I can say for my 29+ years at A.P.D. is I did get out of the patrol car & walk to local business to check on owners. I could relate every street East/West North/South to keep me on my “toes”. Often out in downtown & sometimes in outlaying areas. At times I’d walk the residential areas to just say “Hi”. APD cops these days just drive by w/o so much as looking at ya. As for me, I don’t want the “High Sheriff” in charge of my City! Why aren’t Municipal charges made to go to jail….The Sheriff charges like $96 a day to lodge them which comes outta the City Court budget so no jail time. I liked having our own City jail in the basement! If I said you went to jail, you went to jail & stayed there until Monday arraignment!

  8. thomas earl cordier says:

    The City budgets based on headcount. The fewer the better says the taxpayer. The root problem is not having done any activity study. Example: how much time should it take to service a fire hydrant–they say 2hrs, ok– how many hydrants are there—do the math–that’s how many fte’s are needed to do that job. If you’d hire a consultant to complete a matrix to accumulate total fte’s needed for all the jobs in Sewer, road maint, water tmt, etc you’d know how many FTE’s are NEEDED. I’d bet you’d find 8 to 12% of current employees are not needed. That’s how to reduce costs and improve efficiency. Let the math dictate headcount. Instead the City budgets off current work force while each department defends their headcount without knowing their TRUE costs.

    • Bob Woods says:

      You make assumptions based on what you want to believe, not on what is really happening or what you have actual evidence for. They know how long it takes to get jobs done – they’ve been doing it for decades.

      You’re old Tom. Haven’t been in the workforce for what, 10 years or more? And as far as I remember you retired from Wah Chang, and I have not heard about you ever working for the City. So you don’t really know – you just assume.

      You have always carried a chip on your shoulder about how bad all government is and how bad of workers they are. Maybe it’s time for you to give it a rest and quit picking on public employees.

      • thomas earl cordier says:

        Why HH allows you to attack me personally is puzzling and disappointing. Of course the City knows how much they pay to get jobs done—what they don’t know is how much it SHOULD cost, because the City has never done the kind of analyses I have suggested. I’m not assuming anything–My experience over many years in the private sector validates my conclusions. My age has nothing to do with this debate. You are right–i have never worked for the City–did not have to. Private sector rewards those who have learned to reduce costs, do more with less and satisfy customers, profitably.
        You incorrectly write that I say how bad City workers are. It is the Budgeting process that perpetuates to high headcounts/inefficiencies and higher taxes and fees.
        Happy to report I was successful removing people from my teams like you.


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