Dallas Laird

Recently appointed city councilman Dallas Laird speaks May 25 during a budget meeting at Casper City Hall. Laird asked for staff to draft a budget imposing severe austerity on city operations.

Alan Rogers, Star-Tribune

Disregarding warnings from Casper city staff and City Council veterans, a contingent of council members led by Dallas Laird — in his first week on the job — has asked to consider an austerity budget that would require dozens of municipal employees to be laid off or facilities to be shuttered.

Interim City Manager Liz Becher’s proposed budget calls for spending $5 million in reserve funds to preserve current city services and what she described as essential staffing levels.

The budget includes the elimination of 17 staff positions and other departmental consolidation meant to save money in light of weak sales tax revenue and a discouraging economic forecast.

But Laird accused Becher of obfuscating by presenting a detailed budget and organizing special meetings on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday evening to go over the document in detail.

“Don’t bring a dump truck to my front yard and dump all this paperwork,” Laird said.

He asked Becher to prepare a “very short-form budget” that would eliminate the need for spending any reserves in the coming fiscal year.

Though less belligerent, Councilman Jesse Morgan said he was also frustrated not to have a set of different budget options presented.

Becher said after Thursday’s meeting that city staff would prepare alternate budgets with deeper spending reductions by Tuesday.

“We’re going to identify cuts — the values of those cuts, the potential effects of those cuts and the number of employees impacted.” she said.

Reservations over reserves

Council members Chris Walsh and Amanda Huckabay also requested that city staff draft a variety of options for reducing the amount of reserves that need to be spent.

“Whether we have to spend some reserves is probably inevitable,” Walsh said.

But Walsh said he would like to see city department heads asked to explain how a 4 percent cut — the amount required to balance Casper’s budget — would impact their operations, something he recalled doing as police chief.

Mayor Kenyne Humphrey, however, cautioned that Becher’s proposed budget had already reduced spending close the bare minimum needed to maintain current city operations.

In response to Laird’s call for staff to draft a budget showing 25 percent across-the-board cuts, Humphrey asked what the impact would be.

“How many staff would we cut at 25 percent?” Humphrey asked. “100?”

While he didn’t address the 25 percent cut, Assistant Support Services Director Pete Meyers estimated that not spending the $5 million in reserves would mean the loss of 60 of the city’s 500 employees.

Huckabay said she was not interested in cutting any city personnel.

“Then that means closing facilities — just so everybody knows,” Humphrey said.

Assistant City Manager Tracey Belser said that after sales tax revenue came in below projections, V.H. McDonald, who abruptly retired as city manager last month, had recommended spending reserves in the coming fiscal year to allow time for planning a more drastic reduction in public spending the following year if necessary.

Approving the proposed budget now will also allow Council to work with a permanent city manager, who is expected to be hired in the coming months, when looking at deeper cuts.

“With all of the political fallout you’re going to have, to have a new city manager will be easier for you,” Belser said.

Laird had little patience for Belser’s defense of the reserve spending plan.

“McDonald’s gone, I don’t want to hear about McDonald,” he said.

Morgan also worried that spending a significant amount of the city’s roughly $20 million reserve in the coming fiscal year would mean less savings to spend on projects to boost industry or help Casper recover from what he projected would be a worsening economy.

Warnings unheeded

Laird, Walsh, Huckabay and Morgan were all seated this year. But more senior members of Council argued that making radical changes to the proposed budget before the end of June, when it must be approved, was untenable or unwise.

“To just arbitrarily say, ‘We’ve got to up and cut x-million by June 20 — I think that’s even more shortsighted,” said Councilman Bob Hopkins.

Hopkins called on Council to approve the proposed budget and amend it if necessary in the fall once it was clear whether the economy was improving.

Laird said he was not necessarily interested in cutting $5 million from the budget but wanted that presented as an option.

For example, he asked to be shown what the impact of a 30 percent cut to the police department would be but said he would consider making just a 15 percent cut instead — or no cut at all.

“Pass this tomorrow with 25 percent cuts across the board,” Laird proposed. “Peter (Meyers) could go do that before he hits the front door.”

(Meyers raised his eyebrows earlier in the meeting when Laird said of his proposed changes that staff “could do this easy.”)

Vice Mayor Ray Pacheco said that if Council decided to disregard staff’s recommendations and cut millions more from the budget they needed to be prepared for the political fallout, referencing the uproar when Council considered the relatively modest question regulating motorcycle noise.

“If we make these decisions there are going to be some pretty profound long-lasting consequences,” Pacheco said. “You thought we had a lot of bikers in here that one time?”

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Hopkins added.

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Star-Tribune reporter Arno Rosenfeld covers local government, with a focus on Casper and Natrona County.

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