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St. Helens looks at budget cuts for $1 million shortfall

St. Helens' Finance Director Jon Ellis hasn't put together a city budget in a decade.

Now, he has his work cut out for him.

As he prepares the first draft of the city's budget, due on April 6, he's posed with a challenge: guiding City Council through a process that will require cutting a recommended $1 million from the budget, or about 10 percent of the city's operating costs, over a 24-month period.

'The council will have a number of different choices to make,' said Ellis, without detailing specific recommendations.

Though the city is mum on how it will whittle down the budget, staffing cuts are likely. That's because personnel costs represent about 78 percent of the city's general fund operating costs.

Some departments are more susceptible to layoffs or cuts in benefits and salaries than others, based on how much of their operating costs are absorbed by employees. An average of 35 percent of sewer and water's operating costs come from personnel expenses, for example - a low percentage, making those employees less susceptible to layoffs.

The recommendation for cuts is not new for the city. St. Helens has gone through cost-saving or revenue-generating maneuvers over the past few years, through layoffs, raising fees or simply not hiring a new employee for a vacant position.

The budget shortfall is the result of dropping revenue caused by a number of economic factors such as the Boise veneer facility closure and dropping home values, said City Administrator Chad Olsen.

'A lot of work was done to protect our personnel,' Olsen said. 'But while [in the past] we did reduce our expenditures, our revenue dropped as well.'

For example, the police department has lost five positions over the last three years, including the recently announced departure of Officer Nolan Borders, a five-year veteran of the force. He accepted a position within the Rainier Police Department

Filling that position was the top priority for Rainier's newly named acting Chief of Police Gregg Griffith.

Expectations are low that City Council will fill the empty police position. Last month, the police department was halfway through the hiring process to fill another empty spot, when City Council halted that work, said St. Helens Chief of Police Steve Salle.

'The council will decide the cost to the city per employee, and we'll decide how many we can employ,' Salle said.

As a way of creating equitable funding in the future, Ellis said, the city has also begun contemplating making its budget 'performance based,' meaning a departments' funding would be dependant on whether it accomplished certain goals.

To this end, city councilors at the beginning of the year spent hours detailing goals for each department, intended to be accomplished over a multi-year period.

City councilors, who individually oversee departments, already perform annual performance reviews for department heads. Because they are performance reviews for city employees, and are therefore not covered by the state's open records law, the city will not release them publicly.

The first budget meeting will take place on April 26.