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City Hall

With all city departments reporting, the Billings City Council now has to decide what to do with its budget. 

The city's projected expenses outstrip its projected revenues for the 2020 fiscal year, pushing the city to dip into its reserves in order to balance its budget. Rather than spend deep into those reserves, some city council members want some departments to tighten their belts instead.

At Monday night's meeting, city administrator Chris Kukulski presented the council with three options that, if combined, would cut roughly $6 million from the city's proposed budget. That move would cut in half the amount of reserves the council would need to use.

In the first option, the city would save about $3.3 million and eliminate budget items that would have a light impact on city operations, cuts like moving park expenses out of the general fund and relying on the fees that come in from Park District 1 to fund city parks. 

Kukulski then proposed another round of potential cuts that would carve an additional $1.3 million from the budget. These cuts would have more of an impact on city operations, Kukulski told the council, like placing a cap on certain kinds of overtime for police and fire departments and holding off on some deferred maintenance at some of the fire stations around town. 

The last round of suggested cuts would carve an estimated $677,500 from the budget and would have a large impact on city services. Those cuts included shutting down the South Park Pool and closing the wading pools at Hawthorne and Pioneer parks. 

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By law, the council has until June 30 to pass a budget, and members spent much of Monday night talking about what they wanted to do. Those discussions will continue for the next three weeks until they take a final vote on the budget at their regular council meeting on June 24. 

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. 

Last month, Mayor Bill Cole called going after the public safety mill levy a "mathematical inevitability."

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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