City council members this year thought they'd try something different — condensing what is typically two nights of budget hearings into one.

They set aside four hours Tuesday afternoon — only to finish their work in about half that time.

“It went great,” said Mayor Joe Yochum. “Myself and my department heads, we'd already sat down and put the budgets together with [clerk-treasurer Sharon Meek], so everything was pretty much laid out.

“And it (the budget) pretty much stayed the same,” he said, “other than some minor tweaks here and there.”

Council president Duane Chattin called the evening rather “uneventful,” and he praised both the mayor and the department heads for doing the “heavy lifting” ahead of time.

“Everything was ahead of schedule,” he said. “And, really, that's happened for several years now. The mayor, department heads are working together to get their requests in line with expected income.

“Because of that, the council didn't have to cut individual department budgets,” Chattin said. “Everything was in line with (this) year.”

The largest increase in the 2020 spending plan, officials say, is in the proposed 4% raises for city employees.

In recent years, the city has given employees 3% raises; this year, however, Yochum is passing along the savings from a more than 30% drop (somewhere between $500,000 to $600,000) in health insurance costs for 2020.

“(Premiums are determined) by claims,” the mayor said, “and our employees have been healthy. They've saved us a lot of money, so it only made sense to give them an extra 1% raise this year.”

Other often hot button issues — things like costs associated with trash collection, the city's rental housing program and sidewalk repairs — came up again Tuesday evening, city elected officials say, but even those are seeing positive trends.

A program run through the city inspector's office that pays half the cost of property owners wanting to replace the sidewalks in front of their homes and businesses has grown so popular in recent years that council members increased the annual allowance from $35,000 up to $50,000.

City councilman Brian Grove suggested the possibility of even more, but the mayor cautioned against it — for now.

To spend more on sidewalks, he said, would likely mean taking away from something else, perhaps ongoing paving efforts, so he thought it best to wait and see how the larger $50,000 sum plays out.

Yochum also pointed out that as part of a $1.3 million city-wide repaving effort, funded in part by a state grant, as well as a $3.8 million effort to resurface and widen Main Street from 22nd Street out to Jamestown Apartment, the city now has approximately 9,000 collective feet of new sidewalks.

And thanks to the city's Complete Streets Ordinance, all future paving projects will include new sidewalks as well.

“I know there is a lot of interest (in seeing better sidewalks), but I think the biggest thing we have going for us there is that Complete Streets Ordinance,” the mayor said.

The city this year was able to cut $20,000 from the struggling rental housing program with the elimination of a secretary through attrition. That makes the program — which began to suffer two years ago after state lawmakers significantly lowered the fees cities can charge landlords — more self-sufficient.

A full-time inspector for that program is also now splitting his time between rental inspections and code enforcement, writing tickets for things like junk and tall grass.

And the city's trash collection system, the mayor said, thanks to some cash reserves, is doing well — at least for now. Although he hasn't ruled out increasing the current $1.25 trash sticker if — or perhaps when — the money runs out.

“We'll just have to see how the year goes, see what revenue is there,” he said. “Right now, it looks to pay for itself, but that's with some reserves in place.

“Eventually, that sticker price will have to go up,” he said.

Councilman Tim Salters agreed that the budget process has gotten easier in recent years, both to the credit of the mayor and department heads but also because the initial blow — and confusion — brought by the property tax caps in 2008 is less.

“In eight years, we've gone from having two or three Budget and Finance Committee meetings to the hearings lasting two nights to doing it all in a couple of hours,” Salters said. “It's really evolved.

“And I'll tip my hat to Joe and the department heads,” he said. “Those guys know their budgets down to the dollar.”

A more than $2 million bond sale two years ago also took care of some major equipment needs, thereby eliminating that annual topic of conversation — whether it was for a front-end loader or police cars.

The welcomed ease, Salters said, allowed the council Tuesday to look ahead and discuss future needs, even department heads' wish lists.

Yochum has all the department heads developing 5-year plans so there are no surprises come budget time.

They're planning for the long-term.

Likewise, long-time council member Scott Brown enjoyed a more laid-back budget process, one that allows them to talk more about what works and what doesn't.

“The department heads, they just make it so easy anymore,” he said. “It gives us a chance to talk to them, go back and talk about what we've bought in previous years, how it's going, have them update us on projects.

“It's just smooth, which is what we like.”

Steve Beaman, superintendent of the city's Parks and Recreation Department, has marked off a handful of major upgrades, including the construction of the new Rainbow Beach Aquatic Center, a handful of improvements at Four Lakes Park, the resurfacing of the road around Gregg Park and, most recently, the restoration of the Works Progress Administration-era shelter house there.

Up next, he hopes, is another restoration, this time of the bandshell there.

“What the mayor has done over the years, he's been very supportive of the parks department, and the council has seen that and been supportive as well,” Beaman said. “We don't try to bite off more than we can chew.

“We do a really good job, I think, of staying within our means, not trying to do too much and always looking to save money where we can all while maintaining parks the community wants and deserves.”

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