SIDNEY — Various options for ways to fund the Sidney Department of Fire & Emergency Services’s needs were discussed Monday evening during the Sidney City Council meeting.
Sidney City staff and Council continued looking at the next steps for the failed fire levy by considering the city’s budgets.
City Manager Mark Cundiff reminded council members Sidney voters turned down a permanent 0.15 percent income tax increase for fire operations on Nov. 5. The vote tally was 1,493 in favor, or 40.1 percent, to 2,140 against, or 58.9 percent.
He also told council, since the Nov. 11 meeting, he was approached by Jim Hall, executive director of the Shelby Economic Partnership (SSEP), with an offer to facilitate a community meeting on the fire levy. A similar outreach was done between SSEP and Sidney Alive regarding downtown Sidney.
Cundiff said city staff were not asked to be at their meeting but know several good ideas were generated at the meeting. Perhaps a similar effort regarding the fire levy, he said, would provide the city with better insight on why the voters did not support it and would provide the unanswered questions of the public and misperceptions that still exist in the community.
Finance Officer Ginger Adams was directed at the Nov. 11 city council meeting to look into the 2020-24 five-year plan and the proposed 2020 city budget to see if there is a way to finance the construction, equipping and on-going operation of a third fire station without an increase to the income tax rate.
Adams presented a PowerPoint presentation with her findings Monday night. The current five-year plan revenue projections are based on annual increases or decreases in income tax receipts. The presentation showed the plan projected a decrease at the end of this year of 2.1 percent, but, it now appears the decrease will be 6.5 percent, which is due to an unexpected decrease in direct collections and flat growth in withholding, she said.
Adams pointed out that without the levy, the income tax receipts would need to grow an average 7.5 percent per year, each year in 2020-24 to cover the additional costs of the third fire station. Only once, in years 1994-98, she said, has the the city’s income tax receipts had a five-year average that high, of 8.0 percent.
City staff also discussed an option of adding three additional firefighters at Station 1. This option would not improve response times but would add one person to each shift.
There are four possible scenarios to this option, Adams said, and they are:
• Adding two new fire lieutenants and a civilian fire inspector;
• Adding one new fire lieutenant and two civilian fire inspectors;
• Adding three new firefighters;
• Adding two firefighters and a civilian fire inspector.
Funding this option, she said, would require approximately $1 million in reductions to general fund expenditures over the next five years.
Council member Ed Hamaker asked why the department would consider increasing staff if it would not decrease response times. He noted that he will continue to stress the city needs the fire station, but city leaders need to brainstorm to find a way to pay for it because he doen’t think people like the new tax. Although he acknowledged the fire operations’ need, he does not want to jeopardize the reserve city budget funds.
Fire Chief Brad Jones responded, explaining the levy was not just to improve response times but also to help with firefighters’ work load. He said extra staff would be a “stop gap measure” and would be a step toward increasing the number of staff needed for the third station. And this way, he said, if the city could find a way to pay for a third fire station, staff would be closer to be filled for it.
Jones said if the city of Sidney could find a way to pay for one of the four options Adams presented, which would increase staff, reduce the workload and not have that big of an effect on the general fund, it would be a positive move in the right direction.
Mayor Mike Barhorst said his concern was when he visited industries in 2019, he found six local businesses that had reduced shifts because of the lack of orders and the installation of robots, due to lack of employees. The more robots going in means less income taxes being collected by the city.
Adams said if council members think the city’s budget is set too conservatively, they should ask themselves if they think the economy is headed into a five-year recovery period or may be headed toward a recession. Barhorst responded, rhetorically, “if we knew that,” with a chuckle.
Council member Darryl Thurber said it was a touchy situation and a gambling process to consider touching the city’s funds. He said passing a levy would be the ultimate solution.
Barhorst replied that they also need to consider it could be a gamble that there is not another disastrous event in the future the fire department can’t get to.
Vice Mayor Mardie Milligan said she is in favor of continuing to try and get the fire levy passed. She expressed apprehension with touching city budget funds. She noted the city needs another $100,000 year in income tax to pay for the fire needs.
“We need to go back to the voters and say, ‘This is really the issue. We have an extremely high call volume, and we have a need.’ I know it is hard for people to reach in their pocket, but I think they really have to recognize that. And I don’t see any other way of moving the numbers around to make it work any other way,” Milligan said.
The issue will continue to be discussed at a future City Council meeting.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4823.