There will be probably be no avoiding cuts in the payrolls of Conway’s various departments, Mayor Tab Townsell told department heads in a meeting Thursday morning, but department heads were working to try and cut enough from capital and operational expenses to spare their employees from pay cuts or layoffs.

The Conway City Council will hold a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, and aldermen may decide what form the budget cuts will take.

The need to cut 2010 general fund expenses had been suspected by city officials since Feb. 4 when the general fund reserve, figured by the city’s finance department at about $3 million in late 2009 and early 2010 while doing this year’s budget calculations, was found to have been misrepresented.

On Wednesday afternoon, the finance department had identified the actual amount in the general fund reserve as about $1.2 million — $1.3 million short of the $2.5 million reserve Townsell said he considered "prudent." This $1.3 million shortfall, by Townsell’s order to department heads, will have to be made up over the course of about a year’s time.

The general fund’s departmental budgets break down to 20 percent operational and capital expenses and 80 percent personnel expenses. As the 2010 budget was written with no departmental growth and only bare-bones capital purchases, Townsell told the department heads that it was very likely impossible to recover the general fund reserve without reducing personnel costs.

But the department heads were sent to the drawing boards on Thursday to see what non-personnel cuts could conceivably be made.

Townsell briefed the department heads on what he will recommend as a remedy for the general fund reserve problem to the Conway City Council at a special meeting Friday: A 5-percent pay cut for city employees would save about $800,000 over 12 months and cancelling the Conway Fire Department’s order for a new fire truck would save about $450,000 over 12 months.

The fire truck that would be cancelled is one of two approved for purchase by the Conway City Council on Dec. 8 — one paid for through Conway Sanitation Department reserve funds and the other through a quarter-cent sales tax dedicated to fire department needs. The cancelled order would be for the truck coming out of sanitation department reserves, Townsell said, but the money set aside from this reserve would still be added to the general fund reserve. 

This move, in effect, would "cash in" the fire truck.

These measures would bring the general fund within $50,000 of Townsell’s stated "prudent" reserve of $2.5 million.

Department heads were told to present their proposals to cut whatever capital and operational expenses they can find by 9 a.m. on Friday. These proposals will be reviewed, Townsell said, and whatever cuts made here will also cut into the percentage by which personnel costs would have to be reduced.

These are not the only options discussed at the meeting between Townsell and the department heads. City Engineer Ronnie Hall asked if it would be possible to levy a new Conway Corp. franchise fee on water and wastewater services, thereby spreading the burden of renewing the general fund reserve to the citizens of Conway. 

Townsell said that he wouldn’t recommend this to the council, as given the economic and political climate it would surely meet great public opposition.

The departments that stand to be hit the hardest by the cuts are the city’s police, fire and parks departments. The street and sanitation departments both are funded through revenue independent of the general fund, and therefore aren’t directly affected by its reserve shortfall.

After meeting with Townsell, the department heads met in private to coordinate their cost-saving measures with the aim of cutting deeply enough into capital and operational expense to spare their employees from taking the burden.

Fire Chief Bart Castleberry said at about 2 p.m. on Thursday that he and his administrators were "still working on it," but that his department was willing to make whatever cuts in "everything other than apparatus and building maintenance" were needed to protect his firefighters from pay cuts or layoffs.

"That’s going to be hard to do, but we’re willing to make it," he said. "The biggest areas that take a hit will be training, and I’m a firm believer that you’re only as good as what you’re trained to be, but we’re willing to make some cuts there ... like not bringing in any outside training or sending anyone to outside training and doing a lot more training station-to-station. But then again, you want to do some company drills."

Parks Director Brian Knopp said that his department would be hit hard by Townsell’s mandate that vacant or newly created positions not be filled, as his department has accumulated two vacancies and three new positions to keep pace with the new parks expected to come on-line.

"I think we’re going to look at reducing hours of operation at sports centers — maybe eliminate Sunday all together," Knopp said. We’re still trying to weed through everything ... and find what can we cut that’s going to have the least effect on the public."

Knopp said that another option would be reducing the number of Silver Moon Cinema events in 2010, and that some money would be saved by not having to staff the President’s Cup soccer tournament this year, as Conway was not picked for this tournament.

Chief of Police A.J. Gary was unavailable for comment Thursday afternoon. Conway Police Department public information officer Chris Harris said that Gary was holding a CPD command staff meeting to discuss the issue.