Craig City Council works on a tough budget

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— Craig City Council met with city officials Thursday to work on a tight budget for 2014.

“This is probably the worst budget I’ve seen since I’ve been on City Council,” council member Ray Beck said.

This is the second year in a row that Craig will have to pull deep from the reserve fund. In 2013, the city needed to draw $2.9 million to get out of its deficit, and the projected budget for 2014 predicts that the city will need to take another $2.2 million from the reserve fund to stay out of the red.

It’s something that each city department has felt.

“Our operating budgets have remained flat, and our expenses keep going up,” Craig Chief of Police Walt Vanatta said.

Optimism about the economy was low at the budget workshop.

“What the data shows is that any of us in this community — in this county — that’s going to be looking for a bump in the economy is going to be disappointed,” City Council member Gene Bilodeau said.

That’s why City Manager Jim Ferree said they were going to make changes in the city’s insurance policy. The change will be the biggest single cut the city makes. Employees will have to pay more for their insurance plan, but the city will save $300,000.

Craig Parks and Recreation Director Dave Pike said his employees were relieved that a hike in health care costs was going to be the worst of it so far.

“My guys — they thought it was going to be worse, so there hasn’t been a lot of backlash,” he said.

Ferree listed other areas where the city would be cutting back. Pike would forgo a plan to build skate park ramps. The Road and Bridge Department would get another year’s use out of a truck instead of trading it in. City departments would not replace employees who quit a position.

While the city can scrape by in the upcoming year with the proposed budget, Ferree said it will need to find a way to get out of a pattern of pulling heavily from the reserve funds.

All options needed to be on the table, including tough ones such as furloughs and layoffs, Ferree said. But the city should take time to evaluate all other possibilities.

“We will continue to explore. We’re not done. No furloughs. No layoffs,” he said. “Let’s figure out a smart way to do this.”

City Council member Joe Bird vied for a proactive solution.

“I would like to have some thought-provoking conversations other than this one to help change our community,” he said.

The City Council will do a first reading of the budget at its Nov. 12 meeting.

Erin Fenner can be reached at 970-875-1794 or efenner@CraigDailyPress.com.

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