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9:10 AM Mon, Sept. 24th

Pay, benefits, services tops in Prescott's budget

PRESCOTT ­ Employee pay and benefits, the Police Department, and Parks and Recreation appear to be top priorities in the City of Prescott's budget for the coming year.

During the first public discussion of the preliminary budget on Tuesday, City Manager Steve Norwood and Budget and Finance Director Mark Woodfill outlined the basics for the 2005-06 fiscal year, which begins on July 1.

Throughout the four-hour discussion, the council heard that unusually high employee-related demands this year have tightened the city's finances for the coming year.

And that allowed for few frills in the various departments, Norwood said. "We have screwed down the department budgets as far as we can go," he told the council.

Even so, council members had some questions about the employee raises that the city is proposing for the coming year. The budget shows a 3-percent cost-of-living raise, as well as a 4-percent merit raise for employees who qualify.

Norwood said 80 percent to 90 percent of city employees regularly receive the merit raise, along with the cost-of-living raise, bringing the total increase to 7 percent.

The raises were the city's attempt to keep pace with what governments in other communities are paying, Norwood said. "We're not trying to set the pace," he said. "We're trying to keep up."

But Councilman Bob Roecker maintained that 7 percent was a higher raise than most private-sector employees receive. "You're going past the pace in the real world," he said.

In all, the employee raises will cost the city nearly $1.5 million. Market adjustments for police officers and firefighters add another $539,412. Hikes in retirement compensation will add about $664,000, while health insurance costs will be up by about $363,000. That brings the total employee-related expenses up by more than $3 million.

Although Norwood said the city turned down many of the departments' requests for new employees, the budget includes 21 new positions, including four new police officers and one new sergeant.

Interim Police Chief Dave Benner noted that addition of new officers led to the need for a new sergeant. "When you look at bringing on that many officers, you need to have Š someone to supervise that personnel," he told the council.

In response to a question by Councilman Steve Blair about what the new officers would be doing, Benner said the department has not yet worked out the specifics of the duties. One option might be to base some of the officers on walking beats in the downtown area, he added.

The lack of a definite plan raised concerns for Blair, who said, "I would think there would be a plan for where those people are going."

But Norwood pointed out that the plan for the officers "is going to be a little vague because we're going to have a new police chief." The city is currently screening applicants to replace long-time Police Chief Robert Reed, who retired from the city earlier this year.

The proposed budget also includes a maintenance worker for Parks and Recreation and an informational technology librarian. Norwood said those positions are in preparation for other additions that are in the works, such as new parks at Willow and Watson lakes, and plans to expand the library on Goodwin Street.

Other new staff positions include a fleet maintenance supervisor for the central garage; a traffic engineer; a wastewater collection supervisor and a street maintenance supervisor.

The city also is adding 7.5 dispatcher positions, which are transferring from the Central Yavapai Fire District (CYFD) for the new regional dispatch center. CYFD would cover the cost for those positions, city officials said.

Contact the reporter at cbarks@prescottaz.com