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Budgetary sunshine.

Byline: The Register-Guard

In his novel "David Copperfield," Charles Dickens' character Wilkins Micawber summed up the city of Eugene's budgetary situation: "Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 19 and six, result happiness. Annual income 20 pounds, annual expenditure 20 pound ought and six, result misery." Eugene now finds itself on the happy side of Micawber's axiom.

Before the Great Recession, the city's revenues were growing at an annual rate of 3.5 percent, while its expenses were rising by 6.25 percent a year. Result misery. Revenues are now projected to grow at an annual rate of 2.9 percent over the next six years, while expenses are predicted to rise at an annual rate of 2.6 percent. When annual income exceeds expenditures, even if the excess is slight, the result is happiness.

Reaching this point wasn't easy. During the recession and slow recovery the city faced budgetary shortfalls each year, and has cut spending by a cumulative total of $30 million. Eugene now has nine city employees per 1,000 residents, the lowest ratio in at least 30 years, according to City Manager Jon Ruiz. This downsizing has been achieved without traumatic reductions in municipal services - indicating, depending on one's frame of mind, that the city has done an admirable job of finding ways to make its operations more efficient, or that there used to be a lot of flab in the budget.

There's still some cutting to be done, though the magnitude of the task keeps shrinking. Last year the city believed it would need to cut $5.3 million from the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. By November the gap had shrunk to $3 million because of higher-than-expected property tax revenues and legislative action to reduce the cost of funding public employees' pensions. On Wednesday, when Ruiz made his budget-balancing recommendations to the Eugene Budget Committee, the shortfall had dwindled to $2.5 million.

In his recommendations, Ruiz combined a number of ideas that the budget committee has discussed: a $300,000 reduction in parks maintenance; a $250,000 reduction in city support for recreation programs (with half of that being recovered through fee increases); $350,000 in cuts to the sustainability program, neighborhood groups and the city human rights office (largely by leaving vacant positions unfilled); a $95,000 reduction in spending for such things as travel and memberships; $650,000 in general-fund savings by covering parks maintenance expenses with stormwater fees; a $250,000 reduction in the city's contribution to the intergovernmental Human Services Commission (money that is likely to be restored later if budgetary circumstances allow), and a $650,000 cut in library services.

There, that wasn't so bad, was it?

The library services cut has drawn the most public attention. Each of the budget committee's five options that outlined specific budget reductions called for saving $650,000 by closing the Sheldon and Bethel branch libraries. Ruiz proposes saving the same amount, but calls for sparing the Bethel branch. Instead, the main downtown library would be closed for half a day per week. The Sheldon branch would get a one-year reprieve - it would be sustained by reserve funds while the city explores the idea of supplementing or replacing general-fund support for library services with a property tax levy.

If a choice must be made, the Bethel branch library deserves a higher priority than its Sheldon sibling. It's 5.2 miles from the Bethel branch to the downtown library, while the distance from the Sheldon branch is 2.8 miles. And keeping the Bethel branch open is worth the sacrifice of a half-day's operations at the main library - the latter course curtails access, while the former eliminates it. Such choices and sacrifices could be avoided if the city's libraries were supported by a levy, as they have been in the past. It would be worth finding out whether people in Eugene want to go down that road.

After this round of cuts - presuming the economic recovery continues, and presuming the courts don't throw out the Legislature's pension reforms - the multimillion-dollar shortfalls of recent years will be left behind. Revenues and expenses will grow at about the same rate. Eugene emerges into the sunlight, like Mr. Micawber being released from debtors' prison.
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Title Annotation:Editorial
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Mar 2, 2014
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