City planning for ‘conservative,’ 'flat' fiscal year 2020 budget

David Floyd • May 22, 2019 at 8:26 PM

As Johnson City deals with slow growth, Mayor Jenny Brock doesn’t anticipate the city’s fiscal year 2020 budget will be significantly different from fiscal year 2019.

“We don’t have any big, huge, new things that we’re trying to fund,” Brock said. “It’s really a rather flat budget.”

Although she anticipates the budget will be fairly conservative, accounting for a 0.6 percent growth in city revenues, Brock said the city wants to continue to invest in infrastructure that can continue to promote growth. “We have to be very conservative,” Brock said, “but we have to be wise in investing in things that we know can really stimulate our local economy.”

City Manager Pete Peterson said his proposed budget doesn’t contain a tax increase and accounts for a modest growth in city revenues. But, he noted that the city is still early in the planning process and that aspects will likely change between now and when commissioners conduct their final reading of the budget on June 20. “This thing is going to move a lot in the next 10 days,” Peterson said on Tuesday.

Over the last few weeks, commissioners have been hearing financial presentations from individual departments and will start refining specific elements of the budget on June 3. The commission will then need to approve the budget on three readings, the first on June 6, the second during a special called meeting on June 13 and the third on June 20.

Peterson said one factor contributing to the lower than typical increase in city revenue could be the stagnation in the city’s population growth, a problem that’s impacting governments throughout the region. Washington County, he said, is the only county in Upper East Tennessee that has experienced recent growth in its population.

“If everybody up here is losing population with the exception of us,” he said. “That means there’s less people available to come in and spend money on a regular basis, so it becomes more important to attract tourists.”

A low unemployment rate, which makes it difficult for employers to fill vacant positions, and an increase in online retail sales could also be contributing to the dip in revenue growth, he said. “It’s not enough to get exceptionally alarmed or concerned,” Peterson said, “but it is something we’re taking the time now to do deeper and further analysis of what aspects of our revenues are growing and what aspects are not growing.”

Although commissioners are still early in the planning process, there are tangible allocations that are beginning to take shape.

The proposed budget contains a $150,000 increase in funding for street resurfacing, bringing it from $3 million to $3.15 million. Peterson said the city hasn’t raised the amount of funding for resurfacing since the city first allocated that $3 million, which he said means the city has likely lost 12%-15% of its purchasing power over the last few years due to price increases and inflation.

As a precautionary measure, Peterson said the proposed budget also includes funding intended to improve the city’s data security, protecting against risks like ransomware attacks or data breaches. “We feel like we are in a safe environment,” he said, “but the people out there that are stealing that data are advancing their technology on a daily basis.”

Brock said commissioners are also planning on setting aside funding for capital projects in the city, including work on Lark Street, and the schematic design for underground utilities on West Walnut Street.

Although plans are beginning to take shape, Peterson said commissioners are still working out the fine details. “But we’re getting close,” he said.

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