Branson Aldermen Mayor Budget 2021.jpg

The Branson Board of Aldermen held a special session on Thursday, Nov. 19, holding a first and second reading and vote to pass the city’s 2022 budget.

The special meeting was scheduled during the Board of Aldermen’s regular Oct. 26, 2022 meeting, for the “scheduled first reading of Bill No. 6064, the proposed and balanced 2022 budget.” However, the press release from the city regarding the Oct. 26 meeting, and the agenda posted to the city’s website for the special meeting, did not say the aldermen were taking a double reading of the bill for final passage of the budget during the specially scheduled afternoon session.

The agenda for the Thursday session specifically mentions “first reading” without any notation of possible final passage.

In the meeting, Branson Finance Director Jamie Rouch told the aldermen the 2022 budget is balanced with a 0% cost-of-living adjustment in place for employees. However, Rouch noted the stipends for employees using funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, which the alderman passed at their most recent regularly scheduled meeting, allowed that 0% increase without having a significant negative impact on city staff.

Rouch also told the aldermen she and her staff “know there is work to do.” She said the city staff and aldermen need to look at more sustainable income for the city going into future years.

“Right now, as it stands, 2022 is balanced,” Rouch said. “But what about 23, 24, 25, and 26? What are our sustainable options? That comes together with the finance committee and the board of aldermen talking in depth about what are our long term solutions, additional revenue sources, and/or using the priority based budgeting model to look at some of the expenditures and programs that don’t meet the needs of the community and possibly reallocating those.”

After Rouch finished her presentation and said staff asked the aldermen to pass the budget, Jonas Arjes of the Taney County Partnership stood up and asked the aldermen to give his organization more money.

“I know this is not the ideal time or for that matter even appropriate, but I do serve at the pleasure of and answer to a board of roughly 40 investors,” Arjes said. He then said it was suggested to him he come to the board and ask for a renewed letter of intent and possible “increase in investment.”

He said over the years both public and private investors have increased their funds, and that’s why he came to ask the aldermen to increase funding.

Mayor Larry Milton noted in the budget the city would give the partnership $10,000, which Arjes confirmed was the city’s contribution. Arjes then said the correspondence he sent to the city asked for a 50 or 100% increase in the funding.

“We’re getting down to tough, tough cuts,” Milton said to Arjes. “But I also believe the board is very conscious of the monies we do spend. Some areas we do spend we get a return on investment in increased employees and increased tax revenues.”

Milton asked Arjes the benefits to Branson if the funds were to be increased by the board.

“For 2022, we are on-boarding a business retention and expansion specialist that will go to businesses throughout the county,” Arjes said. 

Arjes said that their workforce development programs have helped provide a stable workforce for county employers.

Milton questioned Arjes about the lack of affordable housing for workers in the city of Branson, and Arjes said he believes he can help that problem if the city increases donations.

“I’ve heard a statement, and would you confirm it, that going into 2022 we could have a number of J-1 (non-immigrant visiting) workers here, and what’s preventing us from having the workforce here in Branson is there is no place for them to live?” Milton asked.

Arjes confirmed the mayor’s statement and said the county had consistent growth in the decade pre-COVID. 

“Where we sit today, we cannot host 800 J-1, or BridgeUSA, formerly J-1, we could not take that same number of students for 2022 because we do not have the inventory,” Arjes said. 

Arjes attributed it to places that previously worked with the program but those housing facilities transitioned to year-round rentals, forcing the Partnership to look at working with hotels to house their employees.

Arjes said he would talk to the city clerk to get on a future agenda to talk about all the issues related to workforce development.

The mayor noted restaurants as an example of city businesses which are having to run at half capacity, close early, or take extra days off because of a lack of qualified workers.

“That directly impacts our [city] revenue,” Milton said.

Milton drew the attention back to the budget by asking Rouch questions. He asked if there were any changes in the budget book which would be voted on.

Rouch said a revision was made to the water and sewer rate increase in the summary. The aldermen passed a 2 and 7% increase, rather than a 5 and 7%increase, so it’s incorrect on the summary page. The actual numbers in the budget itself are correct numbers.

The mayor also asked about reserves in the budget and if they wanted to increase budgets it would be additional line items.

“We did not change the summaries, but you can see all reserves are at 30%, and the code says 20%,” Rouch said. “That 30% is just the benchmark for us, so you can see we have more than enough to cover the code of 20%.”

Rouch apologized the summaries were not changed to show that in visual form.

The mayor explained going forward working long term, he wants to work with “real numbers” because what is currently happening is “not sustainable.”

Rouch reminded the mayor of the challenges between one-time versus ongoing revenues, and the biggest challenges are in the area of ongoing revenues.

Milton noted that the city’s average revenue is $65 million a year, but the budget book didn’t show the total.

Rouch confirmed the amount and the amount was for all funds in total, but the budgets are shown by fund because that’s how her department has to do the accounting. In the city’s year end comprehensive financial report, the entire revenue is shown in one report. 

She noted the revenues are marked for different purposes, and all revenue isn’t dumped into “one pot” and then used for any purpose.

“We need to make big changes,” Milton said.

“I totally agree with that,” Rouch said. “I think the long-term is the most important struggle that we are up against, and we’ve talked about this in detail, but the growing cost of things not just for the city but for the entire country, the inflation rates that are just going crazy, our revenues are not going to keep up with the rising costs.

“So the question is what’s next? The answer is we either increase our revenue or we take a hard look at our expenditures in the priority based budgeting model and look at the programs that don’t meet the needs the community tells us are important. We drop those services that aren’t as important to our community, taking that money and reallocating to programs which meet the needs of our community. What you said at the last meeting about getting together and diving in after the first of the year, I think that’s the best solution for 23, 24, 25, and ongoing.”

The mayor asked Rouch to make sure right after the first of the year the budget discussions continue, and Rouch said it will require additional and special meetings.

“I think it will be a great work effort for the community as a whole,” Rouch said.

Alderman Clay Cooper asked Milton about what he meant in his statements.

“We start out with a clean canvas and we look at things differently,” Milton said. “We know we can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing. If that’s a given, let’s start with a clean canvas. [The budget] says we need to make changes or every year is going to be a crisis and every year it’s going to get worse.”

Rouch agreed with the mayor and noted the basis for the priority-based model is to look at the budget “through a new lens.” She noted the Community Plan could be a key if the aldermen go back and redo the Community Plan.

Cooper noted when COVID-19 hit his theatre, they were forced to “throw out the playbook” on how they had been running the business, and they had to “get creative on how we made revenue.”

Milton thanked Rouch for her efforts leading the changes in how the budget process is approached by city leaders and staff.

“We’re all public servants, and I love those policy questions,” Rouch said. “It all goes back to how do you revise [the budget] and how do you work toward it?”

Alderman Bill Skains brought up the ticket reseller issue, and the city being down in both theater seats and motel rooms, and the negative impact on the city’s revenue in the future.

“We need some bullets for our economic gun,” Skains said. “We have to talk about revitalizing the strip. Part of the strip looks like you-know-what after the tornado and it’s not been’s just not something we need to continue to see. So I hope part of our discussions are ways to be able to move this community forward because you can only cut so much for so many years. 

“Then you’re at the point of time when you promise police cars would be on there. The police station will be built. The fire station would be built. If we don’t see some additional economic development, this will be a tough road to hoe in 23, 24.”

Rouch broached the idea of a second reading at the meeting because she would be out of town at the next board meeting where the budget could be discussed. After a quick discussion on how her staff would be able to answer questions in her absence, Alderman Cody Fenton asked whether the final read would be at the next meeting and staff confirmed that but they could hold final passage until Rouch was back, at which point Rouch again said they could double read.

“I say we take this vote,” Fenton said. “I don’t see what else there is to say.”

Cooper then voiced his agreement.

The budget passed both readings on a unanimous vote.

The aldermen will meet in a special closed session Tuesday, Nov. 23, before the regularly scheduled 6 p.m. public session. The public session agenda consists mainly of approval of city contracts with contractors for various annual agreements. The agenda can be seen under the “Meetings & Agendas” section of the website.

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