Casper’s city manager recently warned that the municipality will be broke in three years if it continued on its current spending path. But he had a plan to prevent this grim outcome, by using a combination of darkening vacant positions, wage freezes and a renegotiated contract.
Last Tuesday night, city leaders unanimously approved City Manager Carter Napier’s proposal.
An amendment to the fiscal year 2017-2018 annual appropriation will almost entirely eliminate about $4 million in reserves being used in the budget. The amendment avoided layoffs and shouldn’t have much of an impact on residents, Napier said.
Casper City Council members, who tasked Napier with balancing the budget when he began his tenure in June, praised the city manager for finding a solution.
“This is a big touch down you scored,” said Councilman Dallas Laird, who frequently voices his desire for a balanced budget.
The amendment relies heavily on a new 20-year agreement between Casper and Rocky Mountain Power that passed its final round of voting last Tuesday night. Like the current contract, which expires Dec. 31, the new agreement will grant Rocky Mountain Power an electric utility franchise in Casper that allows the company to have a general utility easement to locate its electrical facilities in public areas, such as streets and alleys.
However, under the new agreement, the city will receive a franchise fee of 7 percent of the electrical company’s gross revenues derived from within the corporate limits of the city. This 2 percent increase is expected to bring in an additional $800,000 annually for Casper, according to Napier.
Citing concerns about burdening residents who are already financially struggling, Council members Shawn Johnson and Amanda Huckabay previously objected to the new contract. Johnson was absent last Tuesday night, but Huckabay maintained her no vote.
Councilman Jesse Morgan objected to the new contract during the second round of voting, explaining that he was concerned the increased fee would never be reduced after it was raised. Given that the primary justification for increasing the fee is to help the city balance its budget, the councilman said there would no longer be a reason for the increase once the budget is fixed.
As a result, council members adjusted the new contract to stipulate that the increase will only last for four years. Morgan then voted in favor of the contract.
To reach $4 million, the budget amendment also factors in an unexpected sales tax revenue bump of $680,000, and $1 million in savings expected to result from a series of budget cuts that took effect in September. Those cuts include freezing city employees’ wages and reducing excess hours of disability time.
Additionally, the amendment will permanently darken 10 city employee positions that are currently vacant. Napier previously stated that he does not believe this will have a significant impact on private citizens.
Two vacant positions at the Police Department — a community services officer and a criminal intel tech — will not be filled, but Napier explained that should not alter public services.
“Those positions do not take away from patrols on the street,” he said last month. “Those are support positions and they won’t reduce the amount of officers that we are able to deploy on a nightly basis.”
The city has closed more than 70 positions in the last few years.
Smaller changes, such as cutbacks on training, travel expenses and office supplies in various departments, also play a role in the budget amendment.
The city’s economic challenges stem from low sales tax revenue and concerns over the certainty of state funding. City leaders are worried that the money they receive from the Wyoming Legislature is in jeopardy, as the state continues to take in less revenue due to weak energy prices.