Wednesday, September 27, 2023

City takes first look at preliminary FY24 budget

Whitefish Pilot | June 7, 2023 1:00 AM

The Whitefish City Council met last week to discuss the preliminary budget for fiscal year 2024 for the first time. Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith discussed significant areas of interest and the heads of several departments spoke briefly about their area’s expenditures and revenues.

For now, the total appropriated budget for FY24 is $49.3 million. Compared to the prior fiscal year, FY24 expenditures are set to decrease $3.7 million, or about 8%.

In her report, Smith said, “The proposed FY24 budget, as presented, will continue to support the City’s endeavor to provide exceptional services to our community, adjust to growth and demand, and improve our facilities all while considering the impacts to the city’s property taxpayers.”

Resort tax collections for FY23, which determine the amount of tax relief for this year’s budget are projected to decrease by 13% over the prior year. Resort tax is a 3% tax collected from lodging, retail purchases, and at bars and restaurants.

In FY22, there was a tremendous increase in resort tax collections which led to significant property tax relief. FY24 brings the numbers to more historically typical levels.

In an example provided in the budget report, a residential property with a market value of about $526,000 can expect to see an estimated annual increase of about $80 on the city’s portion of their property tax bill. The increase offsets the approximate $98 decrease provided last year but keeps the city’s portion of the bill about $18 less than FY22.

Capital spending in FY24 is predicted to decrease by $4.9 million compared to the prior year because, in part, construction for the Wastewater Treatment Plant Upgrade Project is nearing completion.

The city proposes hiring an additional school resource officer in FY24 as well as a new street maintenance operator position in the Public Works Department. In order to keep pay competitive and retain employees, city personnel would receive a pay increase of 5%, 3% of which is a cost of living increase and 2% for longevity.

“We lost quite a few positions for pay,” Smith said. “So that’s the recommendation — for wages to increase 5% across the board for all employees.”

She added the city plans on doing a market rate study to determine the appropriate pay rate for the area. The last pay study was completed in 2013.

The preliminary budget shows a fund balance of just over $5 million which is about 36% of the total budgeted expenditures.

Departments that presented their budgets at the first work session included the library, municipal court, administration and legal services, planning, police and fire.

Changes in the FY24 budget from last year’s were minimal in most departments.

The library reported an increase in demand for adult programs and more quiet spaces for work and study. Treasurer of the Whitefish Library Board of Trustees Trevor Gonser said the library served 52,000 visitors last year.

Whitefish Chief of Police Bridger Kelch said the department has three items in mind for capital equipment: a patrol vehicle for $65,000, two mobile radios and half the cost of a fire/police system radio upgrade.

The Whitefish Fire Department needs to purchase a fire engine for $695,000, along with the shared radio upgrade, an air boat for rescues, a command vehicle and three portable radios.

Fire Chief Joe Page announced his retirement and said the department is most in need of more staff. He said the current staff can handle one or two emergencies with two people on each engine, but when a big call comes in, the officer in charge is faced with difficult decisions.

“We don’t just cover the city, we cover the Whitefish Fire Service Area,” Page said. “We’re covering a large area.”

Smith said the cost of maintenance and repair on the emergency vehicles has gone up, too.

The Montana Department of Revenue reappraises taxable property every two years and FY24 is a reappraisal year. The city will receive its taxable valuation in early August, so for the preliminary budget, it was estimated that the value will increase by 10%.

The next budget work session will be June 12 at 5:30 p.m. at Whitefish City Hall. The departments of Parks and Recreation and Public Works will be presenting their budgets and the public is welcome to attend.

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