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Tracking Boulder’s budget

Last we knew: Boulder city departments have worked for about a year preparing the 2010 budget, in the face of an expected $5 million gap in revenue.

The latest: The 2010 proposed budget has been completed and includes dozens of recommended cuts.

What’s next: The Boulder City Council will discuss the budget at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Boulder Municipal Building, 1777 Broadway.

“Compromise,” Boulder officials say, is the best way to describe next year’s proposed $230 million city budget.

Library branches would all stay open, but with reduced hours; bus routes would still run, but with longer wait times; recreation centers would stay open, but close an extra week during the summer; police would still man University Hill stations, but civilian staffers would be laid off.

Those, along with dozens of other cutbacks, make up the $5 million to $7 million shortfall the city is grappling with in the face of a national recession and slumping sales-tax revenue.

The Boulder City Council will get a first look at the recommended budget Tuesday and decide over the course of the next two months whether deeper cuts need to be made.

“The 2010 recommended budget reflects the current economic downturn,” the report reads. “Indications are that this recession will set the new baseline for our economy and that the cost of providing services will continue to outpace the resources available to fund them.”

Library branches saved

In March, a proposal to close the Meadows branch of the Boulder Public Library system sparked a community outcry.

Closing the branch would save an estimated $306,000 a year in operational costs and employees’ salaries.

But Bob Eichem, the city’s finance director, said the public response was overwhelming.

“We heard loud and clear, ‘Please don’t close the branches,” Eichem said. “‘If you have to do something, we’d like to see a decrease in hours.'”

The city listened, and the recommended budget for next year retains both the Meadows branch, 4800 Baseline Road, and Reynolds branch, 3595 Table Mesa Drive. Both facilities would close one extra day each week, though a specific day hasn’t been determined.

Sherry Sommer, who lives near the Meadows branch and has advocated for its survival, said the reduced hours are a small price to pay to keep the library alive.

“That’s a great compromise,” she said of the recommendations. “I just love the feeling of community there. To axe the whole branch, you’re really destroying the whole community.”

Joan Graff, a retired librarian who also uses the Meadows branch, praised the solution — but worries it could just be a temporary fix.

“I’m concerned about next year,” she said. “Are we going to face our crisis again?”

She said cities should always strive to save libraries.

“They always hit libraries when there are budget shortfalls,” Graff said. “There are more people than ever using libraries in this economy.”

Tony Tallent, director of Boulder’s libraries, said the decision means “a large part of this community is breathing a sigh of relief.”

The main library, at 1001 Arapahoe Ave., would also reduce its hours on Sundays as part of the plan. On those days, the library would open an hour later, at 1 p.m., and close an hour earlier, at 5 p.m.

A vacant library administrator’s position would be eliminated. The city would also cease home delivery of library materials, except to disabled residents.

Along with other reductions, the library cuts total about $323,000.

Similar compromises have been made in other areas.

Rather than close any of the city’s recreation centers, the budget keeps them funded by closing each center for an extra week during the summer. That measure is expected to save $35,000 in operating costs.

University Hill Community Police Centers would also stay open, but at the cost of laying off the equivalent of nearly two civilian staffers.

Another $145,000 would be saved by reducing summer service on the Hop, Jump and Bound bus services.

Wait times for the Hop route — which connects the Twenty Ninth Street mall, downtown Boulder, University Hill and the University of Colorado — would increase during the summer from 15 to 18 minutes.

Summer waits on the Jump route, which travels down Arapahoe Avenue from Boulder to Lafayette, would increase from 15 to 30 minutes at all stations. The same delays would take place for the Bound route, which travels along 30th Street.

‘Painful’ layoffs

Layoffs and attrition will affect nearly every city department next year, officials said, with the equivalent of 26 full-time jobs eliminated.

Of those, most positions are being left vacant. But 15 city workers found out last week that their jobs will be eliminated or reduced in hours beginning Dec. 11.

City Manager Jane Brautigam, who is in charge of the overall budget process, said that was the “really painful part” of the budget process.

“It wasn’t limited” to any one department or level of position, she said of the layoffs. “Everybody in the city is feeling it.”

Among the staff reductions are the assistant to the city finance manager, a police building maintenance worker, three recreation administrators, a landscape designer, a transportation planner, a city manager’s office employee and several administrative specialists.

‘A constant process’

Eichem, the city’s finance manager, said balancing the 2010 budget has been an unprecedented struggle.

“This economy that we have right now is very, very different than anything else,” he said.

The city always goes through phases of ups and downs in revenue, he said, but this recession “is very different because it’s so large and it’s long.”

Estimates put the 2010 sales tax revenue down by as much 8 percent, or $7.2 million.

This year, the city has met its budget gap — caused by lower-than-expected sales-tax revenue — mostly by holding vacant positions open. But that practice isn’t sustainable as the city grows.

“Now, into 2010 and beyond, we need to bring into line the revenues and expenditures,” Eichem said, because the city still has an expected annual gap of $1 million between the costs of services and revenue.

According to the 2008 Blue Ribbon Commission on Budget Stabilization, the city faces a $100 million annual shortfall by 2030 if significant cost-saving steps aren’t taken. Work being done by a second Blue Ribbon Commission is aimed at plugging that hole, but the group’s final report won’t be released until later this year.

“We’re looking forward to their recommendations next year,” said Brautigam, the city manager. “In every department, we’re going to be looking at, ‘Are the services that we’re providing the ones that people want?’ This is a constant process.”

Perhaps the most important factor in just how deep future cuts need to go, Brautigam said, will be whether Boulder voters on Nov. 3 approve the extension of a 0.15 percent sales tax. That tax contributes to the city’s general fund and is used to pay for libraries, housing services and other programs.

“Just to keep our city running, we need this base stream of revenue,” Brautigam said.

If voters don’t approve the indefinite extension of the sales tax, she said, “then we are really going to have to start scaling back, almost across the board.”

The City Council is expected to bring the budget to a first public reading Oct. 6.

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