Proposed St. Helens budget to get close scrutiny May 12
St. Helens could cut library funding by as much as one-fifth as city officials and budget committee members tackle what the city administrator described as "a challenging budget year."
City councilors want to respond to the St. Helens police union and Chief Brian Greenway's expressed concerns about not having enough officers to adequately serve the city. They have a lot more money in the budget to work with this year — the total proposed budget is $87.7 million dollars, a big increase over last year, when the budget was approved at $48 million — but thanks to factors like rampant inflation and temporary loans and bonds, that big number doesn't tell the whole story.
In explaining the increase, St. Helens finance director Matt Brown told the Spotlight, "The reason we have such a big increase is because of the funds we have for the public safety facility, so we've already received $15 million in bonds." The budget also includes one-time funding for St. Helens' riverfront improvements.
Brown continued, "In the general fund, it's been the council goal to increase police service … so to meet that balanced budget and to hit our reserve policy, that's where we had to take some minor cuts in some of the departments."
The library is one city department that could wind up a loser in the budget process. Part of the reason for that is its youth librarian position is currently unfilled, after popular librarian Gretchen Kolderup took a job in Multnomah County.
"The proposed budget does contemplate not filling the children's librarian position," as well as a vacant position in the parks and recreation department, "to balance the budget," said city administrator John Walsh.
He added, "This does not mean that there will not be a children's program in the library."
While the budget proposal put together by city staff includes what appears to be a 21% reduction in the library budget, that doesn't tell the whole story, either.
The proposed budget moves IT services from each department into its own section of the budget. Brown said what appears to be a proposed 21% reduction in the library budget is more like 8%, once the spinoff of the IT department is factored in.
Meanwhile, the budget committee is looking to add two officers to the St. Helens Police Department, a move that would satisfy Jessica Chilton, who is the St. Helens City Council's liaison to the police department.
Noting staffing issues at the police department, Chilton told fellow councilors at the May 4 meeting, "It's unfortunate that we have to look at cutting any types of programs at all. But I don't believe that we can have programs and provide extracurricular activities if we can't even keep our citizens safe. That is an absolute necessity, and I will fight for it."
Chilton added, "It seems like people that are upset about the library position being on the table are not aware of the police issues that we are looking at right now. … I go to the library and I enjoy all of it. I have young kiddos. I understand it's important to the city, but I also do not want to lose my 24-hour police coverage. If somebody breaks into my home at 3 a.m., I want to know that that a police officer is going to show up at my house."
Not everyone is convinced.
Councilor Patrick Birkle said, "I fully support aspects of the budget, including a commitment to public safety. I am disturbed and troubled that we might not have a youth librarian."
As for how the idea to reallocate money from the library toward police came about, Councilor Stephen Topaz, who is the council's liaison to the library, pointed the finger at "administrative staff at City Hall."
Birkle noted that the budget conversations are ongoing, and he defended city staff who brought forward the proposal.
"I believe that our professional staff did not do anything with the intent to undermine library services," Birkle said. "They did what we had asked them to do, to look at the budget, look at services, what's in our master plans and come back with a proposed budget."
Walsh noted that the budget committee will evaluate the council's expressed desire to add two police officers while maintaining a 20% minimum reserve policy to ensure the city's financial sustainability.
Yet Walsh said there are challenges in crafting a new budget for the city.
"With all that is going in the world, this is proving to be a challenging budget year and there will likely be consequences to the city's fiscal decisions," Walsh said.
The budget committee is set to meet Thursday, May 12. It could approve a budget proposal at that meeting or defer a decision to a later meeting.
Final approval of the budget is up to the St. Helens City Council. It has to set a budget by the end of next month for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
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