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Helena officials present preliminary budget, point to changing priorities

Helena’s city manager has officially unveiled a preliminary budget for the next two years that she says will align with a new set of priorities for city leaders.

Ana Cortez presented the preliminary budget to the Helena City Commission during their Monday meeting. It lays out over $22 million in general fund spending for each of the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years.

Cortez said the budget was crafted to reflect the commission’s goals to ensure city services are reliable, but also more responsive.

“The biennial budget is not driven by dollars and cents; it is driven by the policy framework that you outlined for us,” she said.

The budget proposal includes about $1.4 million in cuts to general fund spending. Cortez said they had to make the cuts because leaders wanted to ensure they spent only as much from the fund as they took in in revenues. They also decided to set aside a permanent reserve fund of 21% – around $4.7 million – in case of emergencies.

City department leaders worked together to propose possible reductions. Some of the largest changes include eliminating $400,000 that would usually be set aside for large capital purchases and not filling the Helena Police Department and Helena Fire Department’s chief positions for a year.

“I must also recognize the commitment of the city’s leadership, composed of directors and managers, who together provided light when the numbers placed us in a pretty dark tunnel,” said Cortez. “Thanks to their creativity and selflessness, the tunnel was actually pretty short.”

Cortez said their goal was that none of the cuts would directly impact levels of service to the public.

While the city made cuts in some areas, the budget also includes investments in new initiatives. It provides for 18 new positions, including an engineer to work on housing development, additional street crews and a full-time code enforcement officer.

“Where we’re adding staff, where we are increasing capacity, it is for a very specific purpose, which is why we were able to cut $1.4 million and at the same time add in other areas,” Cortez said.

This is the first time Helena has put together a two-year budget plan. Cortez said that switching to a biennial budget will help leaders make more informed decisions. She thanked city staff for their work to get ready for the switch.

“It will take a few budget amendments in the next few months before we get to a final product, but we needed to start somewhere,” she said.

Commissioners also thanked the staff for their work on the budget, and said they were glad to see the budget process focus on a longer-term vision for the city.

“I really appreciate the ability to talk through the big picture – what are the policies, what are the things that this community is really asking for us to deliver on – and being able to take a step back and have a conversation,” said Commissioner Heather O’Loughlin.

The city will be taking public questions and input on the budget for the next several weeks. Cortez said feedback can be sent to budget@helenamt.gov.

There will be a final budget hearing at the city commission meeting on June 24, where leaders will take additional public comment, then finalize and adopt the budget.

-Reported by Jonathon Ambarian/MTN News

MTN News

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