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Budget preview a breeze in NLR

Cost-cutting gets mayor’s praises

North Little Rock City Council members breezed through a preliminary review of the city's proposed budget for 2018 during a public workshop Monday, noting how the city kept spending low, even while knowing extra money would be coming next year from a new sales tax.

The $66.21 million general fund budget is below the $66.36 million budget for 2017 approved almost a year ago. Plus, the city expects to add $3.3 million to its reserves by next year's end.

Mayor Joe Smith said he plans to call the budget for a vote at the council's Dec. 11 council meeting. Council members will have one more regular meeting before that for any further tweaking.

North Little Rock voters approved in an August special election a 1 percentage point increase, from 1 percent to 2 percent, in the city's sale tax. With state and Pulaski County taxes added to the city's, the total tax charged inside North Little Rock will be 9.5 percent, effective Jan. 1.

Despite the extra tax money, the city kept its expenditures under control, Smith told council members. Though collection of the tax begins Jan. 1, the city won't start receiving those new funds until March. The budget projects $13.82 million from the new tax revenue.

"No. 1 is how proud we are that our department heads listened to our challenge and met our challenge," to keep expenses down, Smith said. "We treat this budget and this money as if it's our own."

Council member Debi Ross commended department heads for keeping their funding requests in line with this year's budget.

"This is probably the easiest budget we're ever had in my 11 years on the council," Ross said. "It's not just that we had the additional tax revenue coming in."

One-half of the additional 1 percent city sales tax is permanent and will go into the general fund for operations and maintenance. The other 0ne-half percent, to expire in five years, is dedicated to a new police and courts building, building or renovating fire stations, and streets and drainage improvements.

The only hiccup in Monday's discussion involved questions over firefighter numbers and the possible consolidating of stations during planned renovations and an evaluation of fire coverage areas.

North Little Rock has 163 permanent firefighters and that number will remain next year, according to the budget. The number of positions is 15 more than two years ago, but nine fewer than the maximum 24 the city could have hired under a Federal Emergency Management Agency Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant awarded two years ago. Because the grant expires in January, Smith said the city couldn't afford to hire the remaining nine it had already trained and vetted.

"Nobody is losing their job or even their rank. Period," Smith said. "We will be looking to see what [stations] are in the wrong spot. How we can better place our fire stations. We will probably build two brand new fire stations."

Lynn Dereuisseaux, representing the North Little Rock Firefighters Local 35, said during the meeting that in applying for the grant, the department answered "Yes" when asked if it planned "on trying to sustain" the number of hires once the grant expired.

"We told FEMA we would keep 24," he told council members.

Smith said he disagreed.

"We said we would do our best," Smith said. "We kept 15 of 24. That's pretty good. I think we're fully staffed.

"As long as I'm mayor, I have no intention of laying off any firemen," Smith said. "And if we can cover our city with 10 stations instead of 11, I think it would be prudent to do so."

Metro on 11/14/2017

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