Billings considering furloughs of city workers amid pandemic

Posted at 2:22 PM, Apr 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-09 16:22:49-04

Like all cities across America, Billings is feeling the pinch from the coronavirus pandemic.

Now, city officials are trying to wrap their heads around the impact to the city's finances.

From possible furloughs, to spending cuts, to even delaying a decision on a public safety mill levy , it's all on the mind of Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski.

"What is the economic impact going to be of all this?" Kukulski said Wednesday. "How is this going to affect folks' ability to pay their taxes, pay their utility bills, pay fees? Yes, I am concerned about the long-term impact"

Kukulski's worry sheet is expansive. Parking revenues for the city have fallen flat. Airport activity is off as much as 75 to 80 percent over the past month. All of this, at a time when the city is usually hiring seasonal help for the spring and summer.

Now Kukulski says furloughs are a possibility, as the city anticipates a significant drop in revenue.

"We have had 11 furlough volunteers so far in the areas most immediately impacted," said Kukulski. "If this goes on, as it's expected to continue, those very, very difficult conversations will have to continue."

As for the fate of a public safety mill levy officials are thinking of putting before city voters in November, June 8 is the last possible date to decide whether to put such a levy on the ballot.

Kukulski says due to changing economic realities, the timing of that decision has changed.

"Just six weeks ago, we felt we really needed to make that decision earlier than June 8. The earlier the better so we could get out and educate people," Kukulski said. "Now I'm thinking we shouldn't make any final decision until late May or that first week of June, because this is moving so quickly."

One sliver of good news: the Billings Police Department will soon get $230,000 as part of the state's allocation from the $2 trillion coronavirus relief bill, known as the CARES ACT, which was passed by Congress about one week ago.

Kukulski also points to the city's healthy reserves, set aside to help out in a crisis just like this.

"It's enough to allow us to weather the storm for a few months," Kukulski said. "But just like businesses affected by this pandemic, every day this crisis goes on, it gets harder and harder to deal with."

As for how soon city officials might know the magnitude of the financial squeeze from COVID-19?

One of the first indicators will be the impact on tax delinquencies. Second half tax payments are due May 31, so that part of the picture should soon come into better focus.