After nearly a year of planning and discussion, Bexley City Council got down to the work of trying to balance the city's 2012 operating budget during a special 3-hour city council meeting Nov. 17.

After nearly a year of planning and discussion, Bexley City Council got down to the work of trying to balance the city's 2012 operating budget during a special 3-hour city council meeting Nov. 17.

After reviewing budget proposals presented by police chief Larry Rinehart and recreation department director Michael Price, one thing was apparent: It's unlikely either will be totally satisfied when the budget is finalized before the year's end.

Less than a week after voters approved Issue 24, a 0.5-percent increase in the city income tax, a debate surfaced over proposed police department staffing. Proponents of Issue 24 campaigned for the tax increase by saying its passage would ensure the continuation of existing city services, including police protection.

When Rinehart noted that it appeared his department would lose two positions - a parking control officer and a detective - safety committee chairman Mark Masser questioned the impact the loss of the detective would have on the agency.

"In my opinion, after discussions with the chief of police, it is essential that we maintain the position of detective in our police force," Masser said. "I believe that one of the main reasons the community passed Issue 24 was to keep our police force at the level of officers we currently have and to assure our residents that they will be adequately protected."

Joanne Grossman, a Bexley resident who campaigned for Issue 24, said she opposed the loss of the detective's spot and said she personally assured residents police staffing levels would be maintained if the issue was approved.

Issue 24 campaign chairman Lee Nathans said city council's actions on this budget would be seen as "an issue of credibility" by the voters.

Through cross-training, Rinehart said, a captain could absorb some of the duties of the detective's position if it is not filled. But, he added, in a department as small as Bexley's, the loss of even one staff member, at any level, would have a trickle-down effect on the operations of the department.

While both Rinehart and council members accepted the loss of the parking control officer, who will be moved to a vacant dispatching position, no final decision was made on the detective's position. Ben Kessler, chairman of council's finance and judiciary committee, said council would revisit that decision after further analysis of the budget is concluded.

When the recreation budget was discussed, Price was surprised to learn that council was considering reducing the annual transfer to that budget by more than he had anticipated. While the actual reduction to the transfer was still $60,000, as planned, Kessler questioned whether that reduction should come from the amount traditionally transferred or, if the amount needed had been reduced over the past two years.

Price said reducing the amount of the transfer prior to the $60,000 cut would in effect penalize his department for operating efficiently and create no incentive for good management.

After discussion, council decided to revisit the recreation budget at a future meeting when Mayor John Brennan was in attendance. Brennan is a former recreation director and has been very involved with the department.

"We're going to have a tough series of budget meetings as we wrap up our 2012 budget," he said. "Ideas that were only on paper are being put into place, and cuts aren't easy to make. The job of the mayor and council now is to make sure that the $930,000 that the administration and council agreed to in spending cuts are put into place. Issue 24 alone was not enough to balance our budget moving forward. The remaining cuts that are part of this plan need to be enacted."

Kessler said council has no intention of making cuts that will negatively affect safety services.

"The trick, of course, is making sure that we aren't sacrificing coverage of vital city services," he said. "One of the proposed expense reduction items would use the vacancy created by our retiring police captain to tweak the structure of the detective function at the police department.

"Earlier this year, the chief of police worked through a scenario whereby some of the duties of the detective sergeant and captain positions could be consolidated, and the remaining detectives and the new captain could effectively manage the detective function. This could be done with no lay-offs, and as long as the detective function could remain just as strong as it was before the change, it seemed like a potential win-win."

All city departments will be reviewed to ensure that they are operating as efficiently as possible, he said.

"I firmly believe that our police function needs to remain strong, and indeed one of our commitments during the Issue 24 campaign was to maintain our high level of police coverage," he said. I don't think that means we can't examine ways to make our police department more efficient . "

"We ultimately rely on the advice and expertise of our chief to help guide our decision-making process," he said. "This sort of dialogue is important to have, and we won't make any progress if we don't have the chance to test our tolerances for what is and what is not acceptable."

He also noted some "sacred cows" could be budget casualties.

"We are getting down to the brass tacks in our expense reduction proposal, and we are coming up against some 'sacred cows,'" he said. "There will be resistance to change. But change is a necessity. There was never going to be a way to balance our financial projection without making difficult decisions, and right now council and the administration are working through the final pieces of the proposed cuts."

A draft timeline for the budget process includes:

Nov. 29 - Finance committee/regular council meeting:

• Second reading of the budget

• Departmental budget presentations from mayor/city hall budget, service, auditor, development, etc

• Capital budget items - departmental capital budgets and 10-year capital strategy

Dec. 6 - Special finance committee meeting (if needed)

• Review of non-general fund budgets

• Finalization of health insurance plan

• Contingency date for items not covered on Nov. 17 and Nov. 29

Dec. 13 - Special finance committee meeting

• Third reading of the budget

• Budget passage

• Items from prospective Dec, 6 meeting if that meeting is not needed

Dec. 20 - Finance committee meeting/regular council meeting'

• Contingency date for passage of budget.