Rogers is considering a budget of $78.2 million for 2023; police staffing challenges must be solved with existing funds, mayor says

ROGERS — City Council on Tuesday will consider passing a $78.2 million budget for next year.

The board heard presentations from department heads and discussed the 2023 budget proposals during a session at City Hall on Monday.

The entire proposed budget includes approximately $78.9 million in revenue, $78.2 million in expenditures and capital projects, and a surplus of $713,900. The proposed budget for 2023 represents a 10% increase over the $71 million approved budget for 2022.

As the cost of goods has increased this year, the city’s revenue and operating costs have also increased, Chief Financial Officer Casey Wilhelm said.

Sales tax is an important part of revenue supporting city operations, according to Wilhelm. The proposed budget calls for a $4.7 million increase in sales tax revenue for 2023, a 12.5% ​​jump from last year, she said.

The city is on track for an estimated 13% increase in sales tax revenue for 2022, up from 15.6% in 2021 and 1.5% in 2020, she said.

Sunday liquor sales in the city, approved by voters earlier this month, will also contribute to sales tax revenue, she said.

The city estimates revenue conservatively and does not consider reserve funds to balance the budget, Wilhelm said. This allows the city’s reserve fund to grow, she said.

Employees would receive a 5% cost-of-living adjustment and be eligible for a merit increase of up to 2%, Wilhelm said. The city made an additional 75 cents per hour adjustment for employees in June.

The general fund budget is approximately $61.7 million with a projected surplus of $309,432. Most municipal services are included in the general fund, although street and airport funds are separate.

Approximately 72% of the general fund goes to paying employees.

An estimated $41.5 million in city and county sales tax revenue is included in the general fund budget.

The police, fire and parks departments account for more than half of general budget fund expenditures – including personnel costs – and capital projects, a combined total of $35.7 million – approximately $15.2 million, $13.7 million, and $6.7 million, respectively.

The police department’s demands include $752,410 for the purchase of vehicles and $200,000 for small tools and equipment like tasers and an Apex officer virtual reality training simulator. The fire department’s demands include $275,000 for an ambulance.

PUBLIC SECURITY PERSONNEL

Hiring and retaining employees continued to be an issue throughout the year for the police department, board members heard at Monday’s meeting. Council members who spoke expressed their support for making the ministry more competitive in recruitment and retention.

A short-term solution to be announced later this year is not part of the proposed 2023 budget because it will use existing appropriate funds, according to Mayor Greg Hines. This will allow city staff to spend the next year working on a long-term strategy, he said.

Northwest Arkansas is experiencing a low unemployment rate of about 2.5%, about the same as this time last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The local market pressure on all positions in all departments is as difficult as I have experienced in my career,” said Thomas Dunlap, Director of Human Resources and Development. The pressure started before the covid-19 pandemic, according to Dunlap.

The police department is requesting $84,967 to fund a new position in the proposed budget: a support services division sergeant who would maintain equipment and review video associated with police-worn cameras placed in vehicles, said said Police Chief Jonathan Best.

The department had 18 vacancies as of Nov. 9, according to Best. This year, about 15 people were hired by the department and 19 left, he said.

“We’re hiring almost as fast as they’re leaving,” he said.

The reasons for leaving are varied. Ten left for other local agencies like Benton County, Bentonville, Prairie Grove and Russellville, Best said.

Eleven officers left in the first half of 2021 to work for Walmart’s global investigations unit, he said. Two more have gone to Walmart so far this year, he said.

Departments across the country face the same problem, Hines said.

On Nov. 8, Springdale approved a pay scale adjustment for its police department, allowing increases of 6% for the department, including a $50,000 salary for entry-level patrol officers.

The starting salary in the Rogers department is $44,882 before any adjustments for bilingual ability, credentials or previous experience, according to Dunlap.

Rogers staff completed the proposed 2023 budget before Springdale announced it was considering the increases, Dunlap said.

Despite a lower departure rate, Rogers Police may be better paid overall due to city health and retirement benefits; however, many recruits consider salary more important than pension benefits, Dunlap said.

The city approved a $5,000 stipend for police officers this summer. The one-time stipends, totaling $667,430, were funded by Senate Bill 103, known as the Arkansas Law Enforcement Officers Salary Allowances Act of 2022.

So far, more department staff have left on average each month since allocation than before, Best said. Some left and were able to keep the allowance because they were still working for a law enforcement agency, he said.

When asked if the department needed to increase the $16,000 for recruiting in the proposed budget, Best said the department plans to meet with a marketing company soon and may revisit the figure.

Ultimately, a decision by voters to decline an expansion of Benton County Jail will have a bigger impact on retention than anything the city can do with its money, Hines said. Making an arrest when there is no room in the jail can be demoralizing for law enforcement, he said.

“I think that will be our biggest challenge moving forward,” he said.

The fire department currently has no vacancies, although it has seen a significant number of new firefighters and more turnover than usual lately, according to fire chief Tom Jenkins. More money is being requested for departmental recruitment efforts in the 2023 budget.

The ministry and harm reduction division are requesting $162,442 to add four new combined positions — three full-time and one part-time — next year.

The only other department to request funds for new positions was the Department of Parks, which offered to add three at a total cost of $123,970.

OTHER EXPENSES

The city’s current two-bus on-demand system via Ozark Regional Transit would be expanded to a three-bus hybrid system under the proposed budget.

Transit is getting $522,000 in the budget, up from $465,016 last year, plus a $332,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation, said community development director John McCurdy .

The hybrid system will offer fixed-route service in the morning and afternoon, when many riders use the buses to get around, and on-demand service in between, when many riders run errands on a schedule. less regulated, he said.

The change will provide more frequency and reliability to the city’s transit system and increase capacity by 50%, he said.

“I’ve used the bus quite a bit to get to work and back home, and it’s just not reliable,” McCurdy said. “I think this is a logical next step in the evolution of transit at Rogers.”

Arts and cultural programming would be funded with $270,000 in the proposed budget, according to McCurdy.

Railyard Live concerts and related city center events attracted an average of 700 people per event and saw ticket sales revenue from table bookings nearly double, he said.

The Walton Family Foundation will provide a $270,000 grant for programming and a $715,000 grant for renovations to the Victory Theater, home of the Arkansas Public Theater. The renovations will more than double the capacity of the downtown building, he said.

The Rogers Historical Museum plans to spend $250,000 on an outdoor green space project to improve its campus, museum director Serena Barnett said.

City administrators have also proposed using $280,000 for roofing work on city buildings, $170,000 for interior renovations to City Hall, $180,000 for a bucket truck for parks and $120,000 for trail maintenance.