City budget talk gives glimpse of coming year

2014-05-13T21:51:00Z 2014-05-21T13:05:06Z City budget talk gives glimpse of coming yearBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

One can often tell what a government agency will be up to during the coming year by looking at its budget proposal.

At the Billings Public Library, the new thing for 2014-15 is expected to be a smart parking system.

Speaking to the Billings City Council on Tuesday during a budget session, Library Director Bill Cochran said he’s considering a “parking by plate” system for the library’s new parking lot, expected to be in place this summer. At an outdoor kiosk, library users will punch their license plate number into a computer, then receive an hour or two of free parking. If they need to stay longer, a message sent to their cellphone — or an old-fashioned set of boxes to hold dollar bills — allows them to pay for additional parking.

While presenting a figure of $3.27 million in projected revenues for the library, Cochran paused at an anticipated $66,000 in fines and forfeitures, saying he had a different name. “I try to get people to think of them as extended-use fees,” he said, smiling.

Other department heads also had reason to smile. Human Resources director Karla Stanton noted that health insurance and prescription claims for city employees are expected to drop $50,000 during the coming fiscal year. While that reduction works out to about one-half of 1 percent on a $10,025,000 line item, it’s the first time in her 15 years on the job that’s happened.

“We have never budgeted less for health insurance than the year before,” she said, crediting the role Rocky Mountain Health Network and St. Vincent Healthcare have played to help keep costs down. “Not many employers can say that.”

Municipal Court Judge Sheila Kolar said about $555,000 worth of grants for specialized court programs, including courts for mental health, drugs and driving under the influence, will be running out in the coming year. She said she’s trying to persuade state officials to fund the mental health court “so we don’t need to keep asking for grants.”

The treatment courts over which Kolar presides are set to receive an award Wednesday morning for being one of 14 mentor treatment courts in the nation.

City Attorney Brent Brooks said some attorneys in his office “have expressed difficulty dealing with caseloads, but we’re holding our own.” His office has four criminal prosecutors compared to six public defenders. While Brooks hesitated to say what he thought of that, Tina Volek, city administrator, did not: “It means Mr. Brooks’ staff is more experienced and versatile,” she said.

Brooks said caseloads have risen and fallen in recent years, from a low of about 2,700 cases to a high of 3,300 cases. Some of the higher numbers may relate to Billings being on the western edge of the Bakken, he said, “but how attributable it is to that is hard to tell.”

The next budget session is set for 5:30 p.m. May 19 in council chambers at city hall.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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