Winslow coping with $3.6M shortfall

As Winslow shifts into summer, many of the season’s usual fixtures are already in place.

Tourist crowds are starting to grow. Car traffic, too, has picked up, and soon throngs of islanders will congregate to mark the Fourth. But at least one thing is conspicuously absent from the summertime landscape: the hanging flower baskets that once adorned downtown.

Certainly flowers haven’t lost their appeal, said Public Works Director Randy Witt. But in a wilting economy, they’re among the many items the city has chosen to trim.

“Unfortunately many of the first things to go are the higher visibility ones,” Witt said. “You have to shrink the world of what you do and talk about providing less service. Flowers are a good example of that. Or maybe we don’t mow as much along the roadside.”

Due to a shortfall in revenue, the city this year will spend $3.6 million less on operating expenses than leaders had anticipated when they began crafting the budget in December. A great deal of attention has been paid to the impacts of the shortfall on the city’s ability to complete some high-profile capital projects.

But the effects of financial hardship also are being felt in subtler ways, as employees scramble to do more with less.

In the case of flowers, the dollar amount is small – about $5,000 per year – relative to many items in the city’s $54.3 million budget.

The bigger drain was the staff time needed for maintenance and watering, Witt said.

Other maintenance work has also been cut, since the operations staff has only so much time to complete its work.

The city is spending no money this year on routine road maintenance. Typically, $800,000 is budgeted for ongoing road work, but that amount has been slashed the past few years to pay for other things.

Now the grading of gravel roads won’t happen either. The city had done yearly work on about 15 miles worth of public gravel roads; eliminating the work will save as much as $80,000.

Even without having to worry about flower baskets, the city has some “highly trained people weeding” due to cuts to the landscaping budget at City Hall, Witt said.

Leaders are shifting existing employees to fill needs as much as possible, City Administrator Mark Dombroski said. Though 152 full-time positions are authorized, the city is carrying 146 because it can’t afford any more than that.

When people leave – Public Works has lost two engineers so far this year – they won’t be replaced unless their roles can’t be filled by someone already on the payroll, Dombroski said.

Work that used to be contracted out is now being handled internally.

The city needs a planning director following the departure last month of Greg Byrne. Past high-level employees – including Dombroski – were found with help from consultants.

The search for Byrne’s successor is being done in-house at about 10 percent of the cost. The position closed this week. Dombroski said the city has an “outstanding list” of about 30 candidates. Interviews will begin soon; Dombroski hopes to have the new director in place by mid-August.

He declined to say whether downtown planner Kathy Cook, who is serving as interim director, has applied for the position.

The internal shuffling has plenty of other city employees working outside their usual niches.

Since the city doesn’t have the money to do much capital work, some engineers are helping the planning department sort through a backlog of permit applications.

Though building applications have slowed due to the lag in real estate activity, land use applications are up considerably from last year, officials said.

Many of the applications are for subdivisions. Additionally, the city has been inundated of late by requests for bulkhead permits, perhaps in response to storm damage over the winter, Witt said.

Evaluating those requests is labor intensive: processing time for a land use application varies with the size and complexity of the proposed project, but in general ranges from four months to one year.

“We’re keeping the wheels on,” Witt said. “Barely. The biggest issue is balancing development and capital work in a way that allows us to still provide consistent customer service.”

Dombroski said recent personnel shifts seem to be working; the city hopes to be through much of the permit backlog by mid-July.

Unfortunately, he said, spreading staff thin takes its toll elsewhere.

“We can send less people out on training,” Dombroski said. “We’re restricting overtime as much as possible. Those types of cost-saving measures have larger and larger impacts as time goes on.”

Police are feeling the pinch as well, according to Police Chief Matt Haney. In particular fuel costs have far exceeded what Haney thought were conservative projections of $3.50 per gallon.

To stay under budget, police are cutting back where they can in the use of equipment.

The department just hired a new officer, but is still an officer short due to attrition.

Moving forward, Dombroski said leaders are focusing much of their energy on efficiency improvements. The city may use the slowdown in capital work to implement some of the recommendations from last year’s benchmarking study, which found the city uses more resources to accomplish less than comparable cities.

The need for change will be reflected in future spending, Dombroski said.

“You can expect to see a lean budget in 2009,” he said.

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