The Big Spring City Council and city administration met Tuesday evening in a specially called meeting to begin work on the 2012-203 budget, a process that began with City Manager Gary Fuqua going over some of the challenges facing the municipality in the coming year.
As in past years, Tuesday night's meeting marks the beginning of the budgetary process for the city, as Fuqua went over a number of issues that continue to task city coffers and resources. One of the most pressing issues, according to the city manager, is employee turnover.
In 2007-2008, turnover reached a critical point with the city struggling to replace 73 employees — accounting for 26.5 percent of the city workforce — through the year. However, according to Fuqua, the municipality is well on its way to shattering that total this fiscal year.
“As most of you already know, we're competing with the oilfield for employment,” Fuqua told the council. “So far this (fiscal) year, we've already had 55 turnovers — 20.3 percent of our workforce — which puts us on course for a record-breaking year when it comes to employee turnover.
“The majority of the problem we are seeing right now is with finding and retaining employees who have a CDL (commercial driver's license). We're currently down six employees in the city's water collection and distribution department, which may not sound like a lot at first, but that accounts for 33 percent of that department's workforce.”
Fuqua said the city has historically had problems retaining employees in its police and fire departments. The police department is currently down five employees — 10 percent of the department's workforce — and just one employee in the fire department.
“We have some police officers who are going through rookie training right now, so they will be on the streets soon,” Fuqua said. “However, over the years we've had problems retaining employees in both of these departments.
“We talked to officials with Howard County to try to compare what some of our employees are making to what the county is paying. A heavy equipment operator with the county is starting off at $15.48 and hour, while a city employee in that same type of work is starting off at $12 and hour. In utility service, county employees are starting off at $13.98 and hour while city employees are starting off at $10.87. That's just comparing the deficit between the city and county. It's not even taking into account the huge pay rates they are paying in the oilfield.”
Another challenge facing the city in the coming year is the continued operation of the Big Spring Senior Citizen Center, according to Fuqua, as the overall cost to keep the center open continues to take a bite out of municipal coffers.
“The city took over operation of the facility in 2007-2008. Before that, the city contributed $36,000 a year to the center,” Fuqua said. “This year, the city's contribution to the center will amount to $163,000 and next year, when the county anticipates no longer subsidizing the operation, it will cost the city $238,000.”
Fuqua said problems with the building the center is located in have also caused city officials to look at other options.
“There are some very serious problems with the dance floor,” he said. “We've looked at the possibility of moving the center to a new building, or even building a new one. However, that's more than $1 million right there.”
It wasn't all bad news Tuesday evening, however. Fuqua shared some rather encouraging figures with the council.
“Last year we saw an incredible increase in the number of water main breaks,” Fuqua said. “Last year we repaired 559 main breaks, compared to 262 the year before that. This year we're looking at 266 breaks repaired. Also, we have been able to replace utility lines on Third and Fourth streets — as well as a portion of Birdwell Lane — ahead of the Texas Department of Transportation street improvement project.
“The reopening of the Municipal Auditorium was also a major accomplishment, as the city used $500,000 from the Conventions and Visitors Bureau to bring the facility up to ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) guidelines. The auditorium was reopened in March, but there are still a number of renovations — lighting, sound, electrical, plumbing and roofing — which need to be made.”
Fuqua also listed the cooperative effort between the city and Howard County on the Troy M. Hogue Joint Law Enforcement Center — which is currently under construction — as another accomplishment, along with several other projects the city made progress on during the past year.