While the Branson city financial team has been able to find ways to reduce the overall general fund deficit for the projected 2022 budget from the $1.2 million reported at the August city Finance Committee meeting, they were still over $400,000 in deficit territory for the general fund as of a Friday, Sept. 17 meeting.
Jamie Rouch, Branson finance director, began the session reminding the members of the committee city staff has been working on the budget since May, and one entity does not decide the proposed budgets for each department.
“The finance department doesn’t set the budgets for individual departments,” Branson Finance Director Jamie Rouch told the committee. “It’s their responsibility because they know those operations better than we do, and they know what works and what doesn’t.
“It’s a combination of the entire staff of the city putting this [budget proposal] together.”
Rouch also reminded the committee city staff are working from a priority-based budgeting system, based on the city’s Community Plan 2030, and the committee is the one which scored the capital requests for the budgeting because they are the peer-reviewed group for those requests.
She said every request was scored by the committee based on 10 goals taken from the plan.
“You take each capital request and you score them against each goal to ensure the majority of our money is going where the community has given us the direction to go,” Rouch said. “The thing with priority based budgeting is it doesn’t work if we don’t make the end result and use it for the decision making tool.”
Rouch said until the Community Plan is updated, the city staff will continue to measure every budget item against the plan and the scoring which takes place because of the plan’s priorities.
Rouch warned the committee the city is not growing as much as the sales tax figures seem to indicate, which she said are “still up and still looking good.”
“As our taxes grow, the (Consumer Price Index) is way up there, is the city of Branson really growing?” Rouch asked. “We’re getting more taxes in, because the indexes are higher, but we’re not growing as much as you see on those reports because consumers are paying more for things.”
The city is also going to be facing limitations on some revenue items, such as the court receipts. City Administrator Stan Dobbins said because of actions taken by the state legislature, there have been new limits placed on municipal courts which have removed some abilities of the court to enforce fines.
“The legislature and Missouri Supreme Court have reduced the number of fines you can assess through municipal court,” Dobbins said. “As well as the ability, this is sad to say, the ability to hold criminals in jail. This has stopped us from being able to collect certain fines...it’s why the reductions are occurring and I don’t think unless something happens with the legislature or the Supreme Court you will see [revenues] where they used to be.”
Mayor Larry Milton questioned items in the 2022 budget, such as a $53,000 increase for the Mayor and Board of Aldermen. Rouch explained in 2020 and 2021, the finance department removed from the budget training seminars (and associated travel) for the board such as the National League of Cities conference.
The city administration budget increased by almost the same amount, and Rouch explained it was also because of returning training for staff.
Rouch noted the finance department, which has the single largest budget of the individual city departments, is only highest because charges such as arbitrage calculations for the city’s debt and audit fees for the entire city, including every department in the audit, is in the finance department budget. She said those items could be moved to the non-department budget for the city, but to keep tracking easier they’ve kept those expenses where they’ve traditionally been tracked in the finance department budget.
Rouch said the city gives $290,000 a year to Ballparks of America under a 35-year contract which is included in the city’s “non-departmental” expenses. Rouch and Dobbins noted after the first five years the city’s contribution to Ballparks will decrease $25,000 a year.
“I guess the idea behind it was economic impact, potentially, we used to make $92,000 off of that and now we pay $290,000,” Rouch said. “That’s probably not something I can answer.”
Rouch then moved into a breakdown of the non-departmental budget, with the mayor making note of the public safety fund levels being distributed from the budget.
“I feel strongly our budget needs to be balanced, with a [consumer price index] increase, or we’re just kidding ourselves,” Milton said. “If a department is getting $4.2 million today, buying power over the course of 10 years, is 20% less than it is today.”
Rouch agreed, noting the mayor’s assertion is true for every city department. She said when they did the public safety sales tax a half-cent fund wouldn’t be enough for public safety.
“If you think about all the other departments included in the general fund, it’s the same thing,” Rouch said. “As it stands for 2022, we’re still sitting on a deficit of about $433,000 after the changes we made [after the last finance committee meeting.] We did the calculation for the 5% public safety increase and over five years it’s an additional $2.3 million out of the general fund.
“Some really difficult decisions would have to be made in order to do that financially, because it’s an operational expense and I’m not sure financially how we can sustain that. You have a multiple amount of other departments in the general fund you would have to be taking away from in order to be given to this other fund which has a special tax.
“I just wanted you to know factually where we are with this so you can be better informed.”
Milton said the topic should likely be its own standalone issue.
“I don’t think there is any other department in our forecast which has fixed amounts [of revenue]...through 2026,” Milton said.
Rouch noted it’s not public safety’s only funds.
“As the tax grows, they get more money,” Rouch said. “The subsidy concept is the same for the parks department as well, and it goes up or it goes down depending on how well the department works.”
Rouch said she was focusing on revenue sources.
“I have sat back and watched these departments, and I am not just saying this, the budget process is very detailed and very refined,” Rouch said. “There is nowhere else for these departments to cut unless you make bigger decisions to cut services.
“What are you willing to do without?”
Rouch noted the city can’t use reserves to offset operations. She said it would be like a family using savings to fund the family’s expenses, where you would eventually run out of savings and then you have a family budget above its means.
The Board of Aldermen will be holding a study session Thursday, Sept. 23, at 1:30 p.m. at city hall where Rouch and the finance team will be speaking on the “COVID Financials” and their impact on the city’s budgeting over the last year and a half.
The board will also be discussing city fees and examining several proposals to increase the fees charged to citizens, developers, and businesses.
A document provided to the board by the city notes the differences between a tax and a fee, such as taxes being imposed for revenue purposes while fees recover the cost or partial cost of providing a service.
It also noted the city has “service fees” paid by individuals which benefit the community such as inspection fees or building permits; and “impact fees” designed to make sure “new development pay its fair share of infrastructure needs it creates.”
The legal paper noted true user fees do not require voter approval under the state’s Hancock Amendment as it would if a new tax were proposed on residents.
The agenda for the study session and displays of the slides which will be presented to the Aldermen can be found under the Agendas & Minutes section of the City of Branson’s website.