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Budget talk at Monday's City Council meeting in Billings launched a discussion of the relative merits of cutting services and increasing fees as ways to decrease the city's reliance on its reserves this fiscal year. 

City departments have presented their proposed budgets for the coming year to the city council all month and most of them anticipate spending more this year than last year. 

Some of those increases mean the city will likely need to dip into its reserves in order to balance its budget, a move that makes some council members apprehensive. 

"We're really short and going down fast," said council member Roy Neese. 

He turned the question to the council, saying he preferred a budget that didn't dip into reserves, and wondered aloud if there was a way to do that.

It sparked a robust, 30-minute discussion on the merits of making cuts to shore up a budget versus increasing fees and fines to cover a shortfall. 

"I would rather try and go for a mill levy than start laying off a bunch of policemen and firefighters," said council member Shaun Brown. 

Council members have discussed in the past the possibility of going after a public safety mill levy. Billings last placed a public safety mill levy on the ballot in 2014, and it was defeated by a 51.5 to 48.5% margin. 

Brown and other members of the council are hopeful that through open communication with the public and smart campaigning, the council could make its case for another mill levy. 

Looking at the budget, Mayor Bill Cole said a public safety mill levy was a "mathematical inevitability." He said if the city pursues that course, it would be important to show the places where the council has made cuts.  

Making cuts "gives the city credibility with the voters," he said. 

Billings has nearly $15 million in reserves. That's about $2 million more than the 29% of its general fund budget required by city policy. Those reserves are kept for emergencies and to help it maintain a high bond credit rating, which allows the city to borrow money at a lower interest rate.

On top of that $15 million, Billings also maintains what's known as unobligated reserves, which it can use to shore up its budget during years when expenditures outstrip revenue.

Last year, the city had on hand approximately $16 million in unobligated reserves; currently staff has proposed the city use roughly $14 million of it to balance the budget.

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