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Council may be closing in on budget

The City Council may be ready to sign off on the 2017-2018 budget, even though members don't agree on plans for a utility rate increase.

The council met Tuesday for its second workshop session to discuss revised plans by city administrators to balance the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. While council members don't have to have the budget approved until late June, some indicated Tuesday they might be ready to vote on that document after a public hearing slated for their regular meeting on May 23. Approval then isn't a foregone conclusion: Mayor Fred Fitch said the council agenda item will be phrased to allow the council to either take action or schedule another budget meeting to continue discussions or weigh suggestions offered by residents.

Most of Tuesday's discussion centered on adjustments made by administrators to take additional projected revenue and add it to three areas where funding cuts left divisions needing some relief. The result is a balanced budget without any projected carryover when the year ends June 30, 2018, and one based on a 2.2 percent increase in water, sewer and refuse rates, reflecting the 2.2 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in the last 12 months.

It is that utility rate increase that drew the most discussion from the five council members Tuesday. While three members and the mayor argued the slight increase was necessary to cover rising costs and avoid substantial rate increases in the future, two council members were adamant the increase wasn't immediately necessary and could be re-evaluated mid-year.

City Manager Jerry Ihler said the 2.2 percent increase, which will generate an additional $736,000 next fiscal year, would mean an increase of $1 per month for base rate customers (those who use less than 2,000 gallons of water a month) or $1.44 per month for the average customer (those who use 6,000 gallons a month). 

While outlining the administrative changes calculated since the May 5 budget workshop, Ihler said additional project revenue totals $676,607, reflecting the correction to projected sales tax revenues of $550,000 from Lawton Town Center and Lawton Marketplace and a $198,043 correction of personnel expenditures in the police uniform division. That is balanced against a $166,545 expenditure to cover the Bank of America debt service for the Opterra energy contract. Added to the $95,109 carryover calculated in the preliminary budget, that would mean $676,607 in additional funding.

But, rather than take that as a carryover, Ihler and his staff suggested sending $120,420 to the non-rolling stock category of the capital outlay budget; $37,389 to the revenue services division to cover the salary of an auto parts specialist who will work as a full service representative until another position that meets his skills becomes available; $200,000 to the repairs and maintenance budget; $118,798 to the professional and technical services budget; and $200,000 to the city at large budget.

Ihler said transferring more money to the repairs and maintenance budget will give the city maneuvering room in an emergency, noting the unanticipated expenses at the Lawton Police Department when a sewer line had to be repaired. Additional funding in the professional and technical services budget would allow the city to address expenses such as mowing (expected to be higher than normal if rains continue through summer), while the city at large budget would have additional funds to address costs things such as fluctuations in fuel and utility prices.

Responding to concerns from Ward 3 Councilman Caleb Davis about adequate funding after the police department's sewer line problem, Ihler said maintenance and repair budgets for all city divisions are less, victims of budget cuts in recent years.

"Everybody has experienced that same thing," he said.

The Lawton Constitution

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