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Despite protests, Portage hiring freeze remains in place

Jim Snyder Portage Mayor. | Provided Photo~Sun-Times Medi         ptmet

Jim Snyder, Portage Mayor. | Provided Photo~Sun-Times Media ptmet

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Updated: July 9, 2013 2:51PM



PORTAGE — Amid a continued chorus of calls to lift a city of Portage hiring freeze, Mayor James Snyder intends to stay the course until the city is on reliably firm financial footing but vows, “If things go smoothly, I think we’ll be able to lift it.”

“We’re not out of the woods yet, not even close,” Snyder said. He points to a June 2013 property tax collection of slightly more than $7.4 million, $200,000 less than was collected in June 2012 as justification for continuing the freeze that has impacted staffing levels of the Portage police, fire and parks departments.

In May, $300,000 was budgeted for insurance claims but the city spent $500,000, according to Snyder, lending support to his claim for fiscal caution in a generally uncertain financial environment with wild monthly swings.

Snyder says the crutch the city relied on in the past to overcome budget shortfalls can no longer be relied on, either. The Portage Redevelopment Commission in the past loaned or gave the city money to shore up city finances but is no longer able or willing to do so.

“We have nowhere else to go,” said Snyder, calling for self-reliance and spending restraint. “The city of Portage is going to continue to be frugal until we have the budget under control.”

“The budget is not out of the woods,” echoed Clerk-Treasurer Christopher Stidham. He asks, “Do we have the money to fund the $13.5 million general fund budget? The answer is yes.”

Stidham shows his own set of numbers indicating that, based on the June property tax draw, the city allocated $4.5 million to the general fund, about $115,000 higher than was budgeted.

Revenue for 2013 has been greater than expected across the board, too, according to Stidham.

Fees collected for trash pickup and ambulance services are each up between $150,000 and $160,000.

Offsetting the improved revenue picture are higher actual health insurance costs of an estimated $4.5 million, about $400,000 higher than budgeted, reported by Stidham at a recent city council budget committee meeting.

Stidham suggests that Snyder is using the hiring freeze to offset higher spending in other areas of the budget. Garbage collection costs are higher than projected and savings from a 2012 employee buyout program have been less than expected.

“Until we’re fully automated we won’t know the full effect on the budget,” Snyder said about the higher than expected garbage collection costs.

At a city council meeting earlier this month, human resources consultant Mitch Ripley took heat from the council for having estimated annual savings from the employee early retirement program of over $900,000 while actual savings are closer to the $200,000
mark.

While the budget issue may be a case of seeing a glass half empty or half full, the sense of frustration from Snyder and Stidham are real. Any rapport built up among the political leadership of Portage developed during the 2013 budget talks has been spent. There is not much trust found among the mayor, clerk treasurer and council anymore.

“He says one thing and delivers another,” says Stidham.

For his part, the mayor simply sums it up by calling it “political,” even though, he notes, elections are still 2½ years away. “The way things were done previously was reckless,” Snyder said.



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