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City council members work with the Athens 2020 budget

The city of Athens has finalized the 2020 city budget with slight changes from the previous budget. 

Council member Jeff Risner, D-2nd Ward, said the biggest expenses have already been appropriated and that there aren’t a lot of expensive projects in the works. 

According to the 2019 budget ordinance, last year’s budget was $15,888,554. This year, it is at $16,421,322. 

“We're keeping our budget pretty tight this year because we have to make sure that our revenues match our expenditures,” Risner said. “So, we're keeping a tight watch on our expenses and we've, I think, come up with a pretty good budget for 2020.”

For one city project, the Richland Pedestrian Passageway Project, the funds are already in place. Risner said it’s just a matter of hiring and paying contractors.

Most of the money actually goes toward personnel salaries and benefits, he said. This takes up about 55% to 60% of the total budget.

A project for paving streets, Risner said, will be done when the city engineer and the mayor determine what streets need to be repaved. Then, City Council authorizes that expenditure.

“But that money is already set aside,” he said. “They always have a good idea, ahead of time, (of) how much money they're going to need to do that. And street rehab like that can cost anywhere between $200,000 to $400,000 a year.”

Auditor Kathy Hecht said planning starts in October for the next years’ budget, beginning in the mayor’s office.

Department heads give the mayor proposed budgets for their departments, Hecht said in an email. Next, the auditors’ office prepares the personnel budget. The budgets are then presented to City Council for final approval.

After the ordinance passes, she said, the numbers are broken down more specifically.

“As bills come in that haven't been paid in the previous year we have to appropriate the funds to pay those bills off, there's always a few that do that, especially in January,” Risner said. “So, in the first quarter we're looking at previous bills and ... want to make sure they get paid off. Then, we start looking at how the various departments are managing their funds, as we move into the second, third quarters, to make sure they’re in line and everything is under the right range of expenses.”

Risner said if a problem arises during the second and third quarter time periods, they will work to get back on track, but will also discuss the issue with department heads. 

He added there are other projects that will be paid for either entirely or partially by the state.

“The state of Ohio is going to be painting bridges within the city but they're going to cover the costs 100%,” Risner said. “The state of Ohio is also replacing a bridge on Union Street, which is actually Route 56 by that point. We will pay some of the cost but they’ll pay the majority, I think 75%.” 

There aren’t any large-scale projects that require borrowing large amounts of money from bond companies, Risner said. However, there is money being borrowed from Hocking Valley Bank in order to fund a new fire truck. 

The city and Ohio University will each pay $50,000 a year, which will total to $750,000, to pay off the loan for the new fire truck, Risner said.

Hecht also said pay raises increase the budget, among other factors.

“The big increases are usually grants and debt service,” she said in an email. “Some of our grants are hundreds of thousands of dollars, mostly street improvements from ODOT. Debt issues include OWDA loans for water and sewer projects.”

While there won’t be any dramatic budget cuts, according to Risner, there are departments that require more attention.

Risner said he thinks the most problematic area in the city is the Parks and Recreation Department because of the community center and the swimming pool, since they are expensive to operate and they need to generate revenue to operate.

At a recent budget meeting, there was also a discussion about raising sewer rates for residential, commercial and industrial buildings. The residential rates would increase by $1 and the commercial and industrial rates would increase by $2. That change would bring in an additional $69,000 to the city a year, Andy Stone, city service safety director, said.

With this extra revenue, Stone proposed the creation of a new environmental coordinator position, but the sewer rate increase would stay at a flat rate.

“We've never been challenged on it because it's such a small amount, but at some point I would like get us to tie it to the surface criteria as opposed to just a flat fee,” Stone said.


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