The Cheyenne Municipal Building is pictured Monday, May 11, 2020, in downtown Cheyenne. Michael Cummo/Wyoming Tribune Eagle

CHEYENNE – When city leaders began budget discussions for fiscal year 2021, the situation seemed dire.

Coronavirus was still in the midst of shaking the nation’s economy, which led the city to immediately lay off 17 employees and cut another 15 vacant positions to make ends meet. With city sales tax revenue projected to fall $6 million as the COVID-19 situation progressed, city leaders were initially facing an $8 million budget deficit.

But after weeks of discussions about both decreasing spending and increasing revenue, Cheyenne City Council finally approved its budget for fiscal year 2021, which starts July 1, at a special meeting Tuesday night.

“This is a very good, solid start to the fiscal year, though we’ll probably need to revisit it within probably the next three months when other sales tax revenue figures come in,” Mayor Marian Orr said. “I believe that the hard and very painful decisions that we had to make early on with the reduction in force and having city staff go in and cut their budgets further than they already had put us where we are today.”

The total budget within city departments came out to $50,572,083, which is $5.5 million less than the $56,073,809 that was appropriated for fiscal year 2020. From 2019-20, the city’s budget saw about a 3% increase, but from 2020-21, the decrease was about 10%.

Though almost every city department faced cuts, some were hit harder than others. For the mayor’s office and Community Recreation and Events, cuts were closer to 20%, while for the Cheyenne Police Department and Cheyenne Fire Rescue, the cuts were less than 10%.

Most departments saw some reduction in staff, while professional development budgets were slashed across the board. With such a large decrease in spending, cutting everything down to office supply budgets, each city department will feel this year’s budgetary constraints.

Budget amendments

Leading up to the budget’s approval, the council heard pleas for funding from local agencies like Peak Wellness’ Alcohol Receiving Center, Safe Harbor’s Child Advocacy Center and Laramie County Senior Services.

A 100% cut in city funding was originally proposed for those groups, which would have significantly impacted their abilities to provide children-specific forensic interviews, drug and alcohol rehabilitation with no cost to patients, and healthy meals for low-income seniors.

However, an amendment to the budget from Councilman Dicky Shanor presents a creative solution to the problem using rollover funds and CARES Act money.

The amendment was unanimously approved at a special meeting last week, and it outlines how funding will be rolled out to Safe Harbor, Cheyenne Animal Shelter, Laramie County Senior Services, Cheyenne Fire Rescue, Cheyenne Downtown Development Authority, Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department and Peak Wellness Alcohol Receiving Center.

Rollover funds are city money that was appropriated for a specific purpose but never used, and Shanor’s amendment allocates $173,688 from rollovers to Safe Harbor, Cheyenne Animal Shelter, Laramie County Senior Services and Cheyenne Fire Rescue.

The first $17,500 that becomes available will go to Safe Harbor; the next funding available, from $17,501 to $32,000, will go to the Cheyenne Animal Shelter, and the list goes on until the funding runs out.

Without the additional funding, the Cheyenne Animal Shelter was prepared to cut some animal control services, including providing traps to the community, trapping and picking up wildlife and picking up deceased animals. Because the shelter functions as a contractor with the city, CEO Sue Castaneda told the council there would be a corresponding decline in services for the proposed 20% cut.

Though the amendment doesn’t make the shelter’s budget whole, it does adequately fund animal control services.

Next, the amendment outlines how the city will disperse CARES Act money after the city reimburses its own COVID-19-related expenditures. The same priority method will be used for the CARES Act funding, with money going toward the Downtown Development Authority, the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department and the Peak Wellness Alcohol Receiving Center.

The amendment also outlines how the CARES Act funding could potentially be used in the future to replenish reserve money that will be used in fiscal year 2021 to pay the Cheyenne Civic Center’s $775,000 deficit and the $260,000 minimum revenue guarantee for air service out of Cheyenne Regional Airport.

But for now, the $1,035,000 will come out of the city’s general fund reserves, which are among the lowest in the state for similar sized municipalities. It is recommended that municipalities keep 60 days worth of operating costs in reserves, and that amounts to $10,296,525 for the city of Cheyenne.

With the deductions from reserves, the city will have $11,717,170 in unassigned funds, leaving $1,420,645 to spend while maintaining the 60-day cushion.

“We have the lowest reserve level compared to the other 10 most populated cities in Wyoming. The city of Casper has 120 days. The city of Gillette has 150 days, and the city of Laramie has 290 days. Laramie County has 352 days of unrestricted reserves,” Lockman said during a series of budget work sessions.

Public safety

Throughout the year, some additional funding from reserves may also be required to help fund the city’s agreement with the firefighter’s union, which was just finalized Monday night.

After COVID-19 rattled the city’s financial situation, the Cheyenne Firefighters IAFF Local 279 and city leaders sat down at the negotiating table once again to come to an agreement for fiscal year 2021. Following many hours of negotiations, the two sides came up with the best compromise possible given the situation and time constraints.

Instead of cutting the three newest firefighters, Cheyenne Fire Rescue will accomplish cost savings through a reduction in force by attrition, with three firefighters who already planned on retiring. Base salaries will be cut 1% across the board, though the agreement did add longevity pay back into CFR’s budget.

When union lawyer David Evans presented the union’s final proposal, he implored the council to accept the offer “because of the length of these negotiations and what the firefighters believe is a very good attempt by them to cut substantial monies from the fire service budget.”

Compared to other city departments, both the Cheyenne Police Department and Cheyenne Fire Rescue saw smaller cuts that totaled less than 10% for each department. When the city initially cut those 32 positions and implemented a hiring freeze due to COVID-19, the police department was authorized to hire five open officer positions, highlighting a focus on public safety.

However, like most other city departments, police and fire both saw their professional development budgets drop, which results in less training for police officers and firefighters during fiscal year 2021.

“The average per the benchmark cities is $1,330 per officer for a budget; that’s the average. This proposed budget, we are budgeting only $334 per officer, and so we’re quite a lot below the national average for police training,” Cheyenne Police Chief Brian Kozak said during a series of budget work sessions.

For Cheyenne Fire Rescue, the cuts also took away the entirety of fire public education division funding, which included eliminating the CFR public information officer position at a cost savings of $91,343. CFR also cut an administrative assistant position at a cost savings of $65,038.

For the Cheyenne Police Department, the reduction in force led to the loss of a records technician and a police services technician. They’ll also have to wait another year to hire a detective dedicated to domestic violence crimes, which have increased by 12% this year.

Professional services were also cut by $17,000, which included the mental health wellness program for officers.

“This is unfortunate, because it was our 2020 goal to really improve our mental health wellness or physical fitness wellness for employees,” Kozak said.

Increasing revenue

With the budget deficit the city was facing, city leaders realized they needed to find ways to increase revenue while also cutting costs, so the council approved two measures that will direct about $3.3 million to the city’s general fund.

Both resolutions said the year-long changes “will help prevent additional reductions in force and help maintain essential services for city of Cheyenne residents.”

The first resolution diverts the Belvoir Ranch wind energy lease payments from the Solid Waste Fund, the Board of Public Utilities and the Belvoir Recreation Fund to the city’s general fund for a one-year period.

NextEra Energy is building a wind farm at the Belvoir Ranch, which is expected to generate about $39 million in operating payments to the city over the 30-year lease. Normally, those payments would be split between the city’s Belvoir Recreation Fund, the Solid Waste Enterprise Fund and the Board of Public Utilities because the waste fund and the BOPU helped buy the Big Hole property.

For 2021, those payments will be redirected to the general fund to the tune of about $1 million.

The second resolution will increase the Solid Waste Fund Transfer from 5% to 9.3%, putting an additional $2.3 million in revenue into the general fund for fiscal year 2021. The fund was originally created to keep money raised from sanitation fees in the department instead of flowing into the general fund, but this year, the amount regularly transferred to the general fund will increase.

Under normal circumstances, the franchise fees paid to the city are used for repairing wear and tear damage on city streets.

Both changes sunset at the end of fiscal year 2021.

Looking back at the last couple of months, Orr said, “In my four budgets, this was certainly the most challenging, however, the collaboration was phenomenal. And that’s what it takes to get our community through these times.”

Orr also commended City Treasurer Robin Lockman for her tireless efforts throughout the budgeting process.

“I cannot imagine going through this, passing the budget, and making the decisions that we did without Treasurer Robin Lockman. She is such an asset to the city and has worked tirelessly for this community,” Orr said.

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter at @MargaretMAustin.

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