City Notes: Whitehall leaders strive to serve residents through budgeting process

Kim Maggard
Guest columnist

In any given year, Whitehall’s budget-development process easily represents the city's most significant policy-setting exercise.

Given the current public-health crisis, the budget-development process for 2021 and the resulting spending plan is even more meaningful to the future of our organization and our community.

Kim Maggard

But although 2020 brought with it a number of challenges, including the negative impact the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has had on our community and the city’s local income-tax revenue, the proposed budget for fiscal 2021 reflects the city’s unfaltering commitment to providing high-quality, professional services in as cost-effective a manner as possible.

Key among the considerations in the budget-development process was the city’s financial position.

Throughout the past year, the city employed a number of tools to calculate the impact that the COVID-19-related revenue loss for our business community would have on local income-tax revenue – our largest revenue source.

In response to early projections showing significant revenue loss, we recognized our priority had to be to our vital health- and life-safety services, and so a number of cuts were made in other areas of the organization.

In early spring, we made the tough decision to lay off a number of full- and part-time permanent staff members, to reduce hours for others and to defer the hiring of all seasonal staff.

Unfortunately, the cuts didn’t stop there. We also saw most community special events canceled and deferred most major infrastructure improvement projects to future years.

I am pleased to report that as 2020 progressed, the city’s actual local income-tax revenue grew despite the pandemic, due in large part to the vibrancy and diverse profile of our local business community, the growth of which has been a priority throughout the past decade.

With actual revenue exceeding expectations, we rehired five of the 10 laid-off employees, and as we round out the end of the year, we project a net profit of more than $2.3 million, which will go into the general-fund balance for use in future fiscal years. 

Looking ahead to 2021, we are continuing to be cautious, projecting modest 1% growth in fiscal 2021 local income-tax revenue as compared to 2020.

With this conservative revenue projection, more hard decisions were made as we developed the proposed budget for fiscal 2021. In total, we project more than $33.98 million in general-fund revenue (a 3% decrease over 2020 projections), with more than $34.24 million in expenditures (a 5% increase over 2020 projections). The offset between revenue and expenditures is accounted for with a one-time drawdown of the general-fund balance.

As with past budgets, support for our police, fire and emergency-medical services accounts for just under 40% of our planned spending, again committing resources to our most vital city services.

To account for some of our projected revenue loss, and given that staffing is our largest area of expense, we limited cost-of-living and merit increases for our nonunion employees and made the switch to a high-deductible health insurance plan, which will save taxpayer dollars without compromising the quality of care our employees receive. 

In contrast to these more conservative measures, we took an aggressive stance on reinvestment into the city’s aging built infrastructure with more than $4 million budgeted outside of the general fund to support street, bridge, park, sewer, fleet and technology improvement projects. This is in addition to more than $5 million in street and bridge projects being funded by the Ohio Department of Transportation and the Ohio Public Works Commission. In total, this represents our most extensive spending plan for infrastructure in our city’s history.

In addition to reinvesting in our built infrastructure, we’ve also dedicated resources to community-centric services; in fact, nearly half a million dollars has been budgeted to fund community events and recreation programming, which we can’t wait to resume as soon as it is safe to do so.

Although I encourage anyone interested to learn more about our plans for 2021 by reviewing our proposed budget document, which is available on the city’s website at whitehall-oh.us, with so much changing in the world and in our community, we’ve condensed the full budget into a high-level overview in the form of a "budget in brief." The much shorter document, which also is available on the city website, trades line-item accounting detail for high-level charts and infographics.

I hope you enjoy these documents and that they lead to better understanding of how your tax dollars are put to work in our community.

The year 2020 might have been riddled with uncertainty, but our organization held strong, and we look forward to serving you again in the new year.

Kim Maggard is mayor of Whitehall.