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St. Helens' fiscal picture improving

Hard decisions still mar the path ahead for city budget planners


Spring means one thing for many public entities, including the city of St. Helens: budget season.

The city’s finance director, Jon Ellis, presented the St. Helens City Council with a memorandum at its work session Wednesday, March 19, along with his commentary on St. Helens’ financial situation.

In his memo, Ellis noted that the “baseline” for the municipal budget in the next fiscal year bucks the “long-term trend of draining reserves,” with anticipated revenues set to exceed anticipated expenditures by a slim margin of $31,200.

“Our position has improved,” Ellis told the council.

But the full picture is more complicated, Ellis continued.

“This looks good. We’ve got good news,” said Ellis. “But the news is, what are we missing? What’s not in the budget?”

The proposed general fund budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins in July, assumes that the city’s current service levels will be maintained, but it does not take into account the potential for an increase in staffing expenses due to ongoing labor negotiations and does not allocate money to replace outdated or failing equipment.

“No equipment replacement,” Ellis said. “This, to me, is truly a concern. It’s not sustainable.”

Ellis’ department is now projecting that expenditures for the current fiscal year will come in considerably under the adopted budget. Ellis attributed much of that difference to a new state law limiting cost of living adjustments for retired public employees, which he said reduced the city’s liability.

But the five-year financial projection for St. Helens still anticipates that expenditures will exceed revenues by late this decade, Ellis noted.

Despite the apparent improvement in St. Helens’ fiscal fortunes, Ellis advised the council, “I’m going to caution you, it’s not time to take your foot off the brake and hit the gas yet.”

“I think we know that, yeah,” Mayor Randy Peterson responded.