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City council lands on 2022 budget

Altoona plan accounts for new ARP funds with no tax increase

City Manager Omar Strohm Monday proposed a $35 million budget for next year that would require no tax increase — even though it calls for spending $2.2 million more than this year’s budget.

The extra money would come from Altoona’s $39 million American Rescue Plan allocation, which would pay for “reconstituting” most of the positions eliminated by last year’s budget, which was passed under the expectation that COVID-19 would severely depress this year’s revenues.

The city plans to use the ARP money to pay for the next three years for five additional officers and a deputy chief in the police department, two additional firefighters, a deputy chief and an administrative support employee in the fire department and an electrical lineman and engineering technician in the Public Works Department, according to Strohm.

Strohm proposed the restorations not simply “because we can,” but because there have been difficulties dealing with the position losses, he told council.

Since the cuts, some work is not being performed or is being performed only with a “high level of overtime,” Strohm said.

In the fire department, the union contract requires a minimum number of firefighters on every shift, and excess overtime is currently needed to fill that requirement, Strohm said.

In the police department, management is having a hard time keeping enough officers on the street, and that is likewise requiring excess overtime, Strohm said.

In public works, the lack of the electrical lineman means the electrical crew is down to three, making it impossible to do a pair of two-person jobs simultaneously, Strohm said.

Strohm has also proposed to restore the post of community development director.

The director’s post was one of many cuts at the beginning of the year in the Community Development Department.

Strohm also proposed to restore the post of part-time legislative aide in the mayor’s office and to create the new position of utility cut manager.

Utilities, including Peoples Natural Gas and the Altoona Water Authority, combine to make 600 street cuts annually, and the city manages those “through a hodgepodge of people working when they can,” Strohm said.

The current situation leads to employees “chasing our tail,” said Public Works Director Nate Kissell. “It’s frustrating,” he said.

Issues include finding out whom to contact in the utility companies and cuts that are made in freshly paved streets.

The manager would track all cuts from initial interaction with utility companies to repaving, officials said.

The city would raise the utility cut fee to offset the cost of the new post.

Strohm also proposed adjusting the pay scale for department heads, bringing one department head whose pay is “lagging” up to a level commensurate with the others.

That department head adjustment would account for the expected retirement next year of one veteran department head, because there would be overlap between that employee’s leaving and his replacement’s starting, Strohm said.

At the suggestion of Councilman Jesse Ickes, the budget may include money for a salary study for the 19 city posts not represented by a union.

A previous budget allocated $14,000 for such a study, but the cost has likely escalated, Strohm said.

The city has had difficulty trying to hire a finance director and a human resources director, and the offered salaries may not be high enough, Strohm said.

In both cases, “there was not a solid response” to advertisements for the posts, Strohm said, noting there is “a limited group of qualified candidates.”

Strohm has also proposed increasing the city’s contribution to its pension funds by $100,000 to $807,000.

That figure is 17.5 percent of payroll, he said.

Coupled with the annual state subsidy, the allocation will enable the city to meet or exceed its minimum municipal obligation for 2022, Strohm said.

Council will introduce a budget ordinance in November and adopt the ordinance in December.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 814-949-7038.

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