Needs such as additional police officers, expanded emergency medical services coverage and more parks maintenance that are growing faster than available revenues have Eau Claire city officials facing a stark budget reality.
On Tuesday the Eau Claire City Council heard from city finance, fire, police and community services departments about requests those departments made for next year, many of which the city doesn’t have the money to fund.
That session followed a common theme of budget meetings in recent weeks in which council members have heard from city department heads that the need for services has outstripped the city’s ability to pay for them.
“Resources are just not keeping up with demand,” City Manager Dale Peters said. “Long-term, that is not sustainable.”
The council is scheduled to meet again Thursday to offer possible amendments to the proposed 2019 city budget. A public hearing on the budget is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 26, with the council to adopt it the following day.
Providing services for a growing city in which costs to do so are rising faster than state-capped revenues creates a funding mismatch that has stretched city resources to the breaking point, city department directors said repeatedly during Tuesday’s budget meeting. City staff continues to provide, and in some cases, expand services, but doing so is becoming increasingly difficult, they said.
The range of services impacted is broad and far-reaching and includes everything from plowing snow from city streets and trails to EMS response times to street maintenance. Simply completing such tasks as mowing city parks and planning a new tax increment financing district is proving difficult given what officials said is a staffing shortage at City Hall.
“What the council is hearing is there are a lot of things we would like to do, things we need to do,” City Council acting President Andrew Werthmann said. “But we don’t have the resources.”
Among those requests is adding eight Eau Claire police officers to the current staff of 100. Those officers would help reduce a growing crime rate in recent years fueled in part by a growing methamphetamine problem, police Chief Jerry Staniszewski said.
He acknowledged adding those officers, projected to cost nearly $800,000 annually, isn’t possible given funding constraints, nor is buying body cameras for an estimated $500,000. But failing to do so comes at a cost, he said.
For instance, on busy policing days such as July 4, officers are not allowed to be on vacation because all of them are needed on the job, Staniszewski said. In addition, he said, curbing crime will prove challenging with current staffing levels, and the department accrues overtime costs.
“We are at capacity right now for resources,” he said.
Likewise, Fire Chief Chris Bell acknowledged the city lacks money to pay for two additional positions he requested. As his department has lost employees during the past 15 years, the number of EMS calls has risen significantly, he said.
As the city and demand for services grows while the number of city employees shrinks, city staff won’t be able to keep pace, community services director Jeff Pippenger said. Last year, he said, for the first time, his department delayed a requested special event because of a staffing shortage.
“We just don’t have the bodies to do everything,” he said.
Facing state-imposed revenue limits that create a funding gap, City Council members have discussed the possibility of a referendum seeking to override the limit. They referenced the idea Tuesday, saying it could allow the city to pay for needed services.
“We have some real fiscal constraints that perhaps a referendum would help us address,” Councilwoman Catherine Emmanuelle said.