As Stoughton city staff prepare a budget for 2020, they’re in familiar territory.

Continued modest growth, lagging behind most of Dane County, is again combined with typical increased costs and several departments looking for more help, making for yet another difficult cycle.

Unlike last year, when he was just a few months into his term, Mayor Tim Swadley has had more time to get everyone prepared for the tough decisions to come in the next several weeks. And finance director Jamin Friedl has been able to improve systems to ensure any short-term struggles are put into a long-term perspective.

That includes preparing more appropriate information for the Common Council, approaching each department’s budget from a historical perspective and connecting departments such as streets and utilities for better planning. Those adjustments, Swadley told the Hub last week, will help make sure early on the council has a better picture of department head needs and department heads have a clearer understanding of the choices alders will face.

“The process this year isn’t much different,” he said. “It’s easier to approach certain members of leadership (in one-on-one meetings before the budget).”

Swadley and Friedl will introduce the mayor’s budget at the council’s Oct. 3 committee of the whole meeting, which is a less formal version of a Common Council meeting. The committee has three meetings scheduled to discuss the budget before it gets published for a November public hearing.

The good news for taxpayers is tax rates are likely to drop, though with the increase in home values felt all over the county, city taxes will likely go up for most people.

But there’s much yet to be worked out before that becomes clear.

So far, many items in the budget have been moving targets, including state aids and health insurance. And it’s unclear yet which will be the biggest limiting factor in the budget, a statutory limit of 1.5 percent growth (based on net new construction) or expenditure restraint, a voluntary program that would cost more than $200,000 next year if the city doesn’t stay under a set spending number.

Either way, there won’t be many options available, so Swadley has been working with department heads to tighten their requests, which included staffing increases for every department but finance and the clerk’s office.

“We’re just going to try to chip away at it the best we can,” Swadley said. “Last year, we thought the 3% (cost-of-living increase) was a win. We’re not sure what a win is this year.”

Ongoing costs

Certainly not everyone will get a win in this year’s budget. As with past years, there is no way the council could fulfill all department staffing requests.

Again, there are requests for police, fire, library, public works and other departments. Though few are realistic this year, all will be presented to give a well-rounded look at what they believe the city eventually will need.

“The council has requested we give them all the requests, because they want to understand what our needs are and the benefits if we would fill all of those positions,” Swadley explained.

One request is the “right-sizing” staff compensation plan Swadley introduced last year. He and human resources director AJ Gillingham had hoped to complete it this year, but even though it appears to be less expensive, it doesn’t seem likely, he said.

A position that might not be as difficult to fund as others is an engineer tech for the planning department. Because those services are routinely performed by contractors and because it would be so closely tied to capital improvements, the city has the ability to use some of the $200,000 the general fund sends annually to the capital improvement plan.

“Other municipalities fund these positions through the CIP,” Swadley pointed out. “These are the types of things we just couldn’t do last year because I was new, and Jamin was new.”

Another benefit of the position would be succession planning, he said. All three members of the planning department are nearing eligibility for retirement, and this position could help ensure a seamless transition whenever they move on.

City staff have scored at least one important victory, with Gillingham reducing what had been expected to be an 8 percent increase in health insurance rates.

“She’s negotiated with our health care provider,” Swadley said. “She’s been able to maintain a flat rate for 2020, which is a huge win for us.”

Working it out

While alders discuss the mayor’s proposed budget during three October meetings, staff will continue to adjust details, based both on requests and on new information.

Despite the state levy limits – preventing municipalities from increasing more than net new construction – there are often ways to move money around if there’s something that’s high priority.

For example, it could also reduce its contributions to rolling funds aimed at debt reduction, such as for equipment replacement and building maintenance, though doing so can create holes in future budgets.

Swadley said those funds are designed to ensure the city’s bond rating stays in good standing, which helps it get good interest rates on debt.

“We’re pretty aggressive on paying debt off, and we have to be,” he said.

Those numbers can be weighed against future expectations, such as how debt on a previous EMS station remodel will be retiring next year.

Swadley will be holding one-on-one meetings with each department head to determine priorities.

“We not only go through the numbers, but we hear from the leadership positions what the benefit would be,” he said. “Then make determinations which ones we can fulfill.”

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