The Zionsville Town Council adopted the 2022 budget ahead of the state’s Nov. 1 deadline, providing what Zionsville Mayor Emily Styron said is a much-needed investment in the town’s municipal workforce. However, council members stated they are still concerned by what they believe was the budget’s failure to address a need for more public safety personnel.
During the council’s Oct. 18 meeting, council members adopted the town’s 2022 budget by a 5-1 vote. Zionsville Town Council Vice President Jason Plunkett cast the dissenting vote. Council member Bryan Traylor did not attend.
The mayor, at the request of the town council, presented a balanced budget, meaning projected revenues slightly exceed projected expenses. According to Styron’s Oct. 4 presentation to the council, the town’s 2022 projected revenues are $32,587,219, and its projected 2022 expenses are $32,570,253.
The town projects 2022 revenues to be flat, in large part because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the approved budget includes a 4 percent raise for town employees, a priority for Styron and the council. Last year, the administration presented a budget that included expenses exceeding revenues by more than $6 million, with the intent to fund long-term projects. It also initially included a proposed 3 percent payroll increase for town employees, but it was cut to 1 percent to adopt a balanced budget.
Council member Alex Choi said the budgetary challenges the town faced this year were not unique to Zionsville, adding that “COVID and lingering issues made it tough.” Although property taxes increased because of rising home values and new development, projections of local income taxes decreased. Town Council President Josh Garrett said the two “effectively canceled each other out.”
“What I believe we set out to achieve, which was a fully balanced budget, revenues equaling outgoing expenses, we were able to achieve that,” Styron said. “And that was notwithstanding having a much lower revenue reality than what we have experienced in the past and what we had hoped for. We did say from the beginning our employees are our primary focal point for this budget season, so when we ended up with less dollars than we had in previous years, we made it a priority to invest those dollars in our people.”
Town officials said wage pressures in a competitive job market, inflation and the minimal payroll increase last year while the council took a cautious financial approach in the early months of the pandemic were contributing factors to raising town employee wages.
Garrett said this year’s budget season went “better than last year, but not as good as I would have liked.”
“I think the concern lies, for me, in the lack of hiring on the public safety side of the budget,” Garrett said.
Despite approving the budget, the council remains concerned that it did not include funds for new firefighters and police officers.
Plunkett, who served as a council liaison for the Zionsville Fire Dept. in meetings prior to the budget’s adoption, said during the meeting that he could not vote in favor of adopting a budget that he believed did not include adequate funds to address the town’s public safety needs.
The council issued a joint statement on its Facebook page Oct. 20 addressing its concerns.
“During the budget process the fire department leadership requested 9 new members to the department,” the council stated. “This was supported by two different internal (analyses) that showed a need of between 7 and 11 new firefighters and support staff. In addition, the 5-year plan for the police department showed a need for 10 officers over that period. That follows a report issued by the administration during the transition that stated a need for 10 new officers immediately.”
The budget did not include funds for the hiring of additional personnel in either department. The Zionsville Police Dept. is also expected to assign an officer to serve as the school resource officer at Trailside Elementary when the new school opens in fall 2023.
Styron said the budget did not include funds for additional fire or police personnel because the town is developing a strategic plan to assess the long-term needs of the town’s fire department. The town also is creating a sustainability plan, which will create a forward-looking budget to anticipate the town’s revenues, expenses and needs multiple years in advance.
“Part of our issues in the fire department from a resources perspective is that we have some folks who are getting ready for retirement,” Styron said. “I think for the Town of Zionsville to start to have a group of people who are looking at some of these drivers for some of these costs, and some of the ways our workforce has changed, is crucial so that we can begin to sustainably begin to talk about what revenue growth in order to keep up with the expenses that we need in the future.
“The answer is not to hire seven new people in one year, who in 20 years from now would be seven people you need to replace. We need to really think through how we have a longer, sustainable plan for managing all of our resources, including our most important resource, which is our labor force.”
Styron said she anticipates the fire strategic plan and sustainability plans will recommend hiring fire department personnel, but that as of now, the town doesn’t know “what we need and where we need it.”
“Once we are finished with the strategic plan, then we will have all of that information and can come much better informed with a long-term strategy and talk about how many people we need to hire over a period of time,” said Styron, adding that she was not in favor of using a fund balance to hire seven employees in one year without knowing if the town’s revenues would support the positions the following year.
Garrett said the town’s continued growth makes it difficult for him to believe the town can maintain services without adding personnel to the budget.