Janesville77.1°

Budget talks get heated

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MARCIA A. NELESEN
October 23, 2008
— Firefighters might die if training is cut to help the city achieve a zero budget increase, Fire Chief Larry Grorud said in a heated city council budget meeting Wednesday night.

"I don't want to kill firefighters," Grorud said.


Councilman George Brunner, former Janesville police chief, said difficult economic times call for a zero city spending increase—which would yield a drop in the proposed tax rate of about 2 percent.


When Brunner asked if the fire department could refrain from out-of-state travel, Grorud called it one of the most "ludicrous" statements anyone could make.


Grorud said he could send firefighters cheaper to Rockford, Ill., for training, for example, than to Ashland.


Grorud argued he couldn't cut anything from his budget without cutting people because 92 percent is personnel costs.


Brunner also butted heads with Councilman Russ Steeber, who opposed many of Brunner's suggested cuts. After a heated exchange about the fire department budget, Brunner appeared ready to walk out of the meeting.


By the end of the night, the council had painstakingly trimmed $80,200 from the 2009 budget, ending a long way from an approximate $545,000 goal.


The proposed tax levy is $27.78 million, an increase of about 4.58 percent. A $272,526 levy cut would be needed to reduce the tax rate 1 percent.


The four-hour session Wednesday was the first of three scheduled budget study sessions. The second is Wednesday, Oct. 29.


Council members said at the beginning of the meeting they would not cut personnel.


And because people comprise the majority of the budget, members often went line-by-line looking for other options.


Training, conferences, memberships and subscriptions got especially hard looks.


Brunner said the cuts could be accomplished without impacting services by "tightening belts and controlling expenditures."


Said Steeber: "I'm going to sound like the guy who doesn't want to cut budgets. (But) police and fire are an area you cannot skimp on. Conferences, training, clothing … That's what keeps our citizens safe."


Councilman Tom McDonald responded: "I absolutely disagree that police and fire are off limits and cannot possibly be touched."


And Yuri Rashkin said, "I think we owe it to the city of Janesville to ask questions."


The fire budget includes $55,000 in training, conferences and memberships, Grorud said.


Some of that is for Grorud and two deputy chiefs to attend the International Association of Fire Chiefs convention in Dallas. Grorud recently was installed as president, and he asked that both deputy chiefs be allowed to attend.


The council and Grorud agreed to cut $3,100 of $6,200 set aside in case he needs to outfit any new recruits.


Steeber said wage and benefit increases make a zero budget increase unrealistic.


But Amy Loasching said she believes there is "plenty of fluff" in the budget.


Steeber disagreed.


"I don't think that there's any staff or any department ... that would intentionally put fluff in the budget," Steeber said.


But Loasching said the city has to cut just as families are cutting. Some examples of "fluff," she said, are travel, memberships, conferences and some training.


McDonald said: "I'm sure people would rather keep their jobs than have an … overnight retreat somewhere. I think training is important, (but) we don't need to go all over the country."


Said Steeber: "I don't think we can get close to $600,000 in cuts just by cutting … this conference or that publication … It seems almost impossible without affecting staffing levels to some degree."


BUDGET CUTS

Some cuts from the 2009 proposed city budget include:


-- $18,488 from the general fund, accomplished by delaying until July hiring an assistant director of administrative services. The remainder of the salary is paid for by non-general fund departments.


-- $10,500 from staff development.


-- $300 from supplies for the neighborhood services department.


-- $5,250 from sending notices to residents about neighborhood meetings. The notices instead will be included in the city's newsletters.


-- $3,100 from firefighter gear.


The council also asked Jay Winzenz, acting city manager, to come back with a proposal for a managerial retreat that doesn't include an overnight. Winzenz wanted to take staff to Lake Geneva at a cost of about $5,000, of which $3,850 would come from the general fund.


Councilman Tom McDonald said something nice could be done locally to avoid the motel room cost, while councilman Russ Steeber said there is "something to be said for being completely out of the city."



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