Orem makes adjustments to cope with economic downturn

With Orem's tax revenue down significantly thanks to the economic downturn, the city has been forced to put several projects on hold and make other budgetary adjustments.

Orem Mayor Jerry Washburn said Monday that sales tax revenue, the lifeblood of most cities to provide residents with public services, is down by 7 percent compared to last year's numbers. To compensate, the city has adjusted or delayed capital projects scheduled for late 2008 and this year, such as the construction of Fire Station No. 4 in southwest Orem. To stretch the budget, the city has also deferred the annual replacement program of the city's vehicle fleet and enacted a hiring freeze for all but the most critical of positions.

The city has not had to lay off any employees who weren't retiring or leaving their positions, Washburn said.

"We feel like the city is healthy. The city is well-prepared to meet the financial crisis upon us right now," he said. "We have been able to reduce our budget without impacting services or jobs. We're confident we'll be able to do that."

In past years, and particularly during current tough times, the mayor said the Orem City Council has taken a dollar-cautious approach to drafting each year's new fiscal budget. That includes underestimating revenue and overestimating expenses, he said.

"That's given us quite a cushion," Washburn said. "That's helped us this year."

The most pressing budgetary concern currently facing the city is a solution to house the city's legal department that is currently located in the 4th District Court building at city center. The lease for the current offices expires in 2011 and the court isn't interested in renewing the lease, he said.

Earlier in 2008, the city had begun concept and design work for an addition and remodel of city hall to add square footage for the city attorneys and staff. Despite not having current funding available for the proposed construction, the City Council has opted to have the contracted architectural firm complete its design plans for the project. The design will include layout alternatives based on various budgetary scenarios and an overall master plan for the city center campus.

"We're having them conclude the [plans] so the project can be bid if the economic climate becomes appropriate" in the future, Washburn said.

To save taxpayer money, the city also has begun pre-bidding out contracts for projects earlier in the development process to lock in current construction rates rather than risk paying ever-escalating building costs, he said.

In the upcoming session of the Utah Legislature, Orem officials will be closely watching the funding of major Utah Department of Transportation projects currently on hold because of cutbacks including the Vineyard Connector, the widening of Geneva Road and Interstate 15 reconstruction in Utah County.

"We're very concerned those are not unduly delayed or scuttled," Washburn said.

But the primary focus of the city remains on continuing to provide Orem residents with the services they expect. That includes services and improvements to roads and other city infrastructure that the city has appropriated a budget and reserve funding for.

"That is the goal," he said. "We anticipate we'll be able to do that."

If President-elect Barack Obama is successful in his plan to craft a far-reaching stimulus package aimed at boosting the economy and creating jobs, Washburn said the city is qualified and ready to use possible stimulus monies for municipal curb and gutter, water and sewer line and road improvements, Washburn said.

Orem city officials are also in the process of assembling a gang issues task force made up of parents, educational leaders and law enforcement representatives. The group will be tasked with recommending legislative changes at the city and state levels to help curtail gang-related activity and crime, Washburn said.

By way of transportation, the city is looking into adding more bicycle lanes and "Share the Road"-type signage to Orem's streets. The Utah Transit Authority's Provo-Orem Bus Rapid Transit project is moving forward and in the design and environmental study phases, he said.