COVID-19 didn’t impact Mount Shasta’s budget as much as feared

Kelsey Shelton
Mount Shasta Herald

Because people spent money in Mount Shasta during the COVID-19 shutdown, impact to the city’s budget was not as dire as originally expected, Mount Shasta Finance Director Muriel Howarth Terrell told city councilors during their meeting on Sept. 14.

“Our sales tax came in better than it had in the past,” Howarth Terrell said. “With people staying home and spending money at the hardware store and other places here, actually, we did better. People were spending money here, and I think that’s part of what happened.”

As a result, councilors unanimously agreed to reverse the hiring freeze instituted when COVID-19 struck in order to begin filling necessary positions, such as dispatchers at the Mount Shasta Police Department.

The City of Mt. Shasta

Also at the meeting, firefighters who have gone unpaid for two years due to a financial “mishap” will now be paid retroactively despite the city’s pinched budget, councilors decided.

Howarth Terrell presented councilors with the end of the year budget report, which bore “good news of fiscal year end results.”

The city estimated it would lose $450,000 due to effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Howarth Terrell said, from the city’s $4.197 million budget. However, the city came out “in the black” and ahead of projections.

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“All in all, we see in a COVID world that yes, there are revenue losses, but not to the extent of the full shut-down,” said Howarth Terrell. The estimate for losses were determined by using a full COVID shutdown model. Analyzed were Transient Occupancy Tax from local hotels and motels, cannabis tax, sales tax,  licensing fees, and property taxes.

Staff was asked to move forward with the budget and Howarth Terrell suggested removing the hiring freeze that the city had put in place at the beginning of the pandemic. 

It was clarified during discussion that the budget includes a full staff, so the fees available for missing city staff members are budgeted and accounted for, even if the position is not actively filled. 

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Dispatcher Dawn Snure commented during the meeting that Mount Shasta Police Department’s dispatch team has two part time employees and two full time employees, with two open positions unfilled. 

Due to the pandemic and loss of personnel, the two part time positions, according to Snure, are working full time hours, with part time pay and benefits. This also means that the full time dispatchers are accruing more overtime pay than recommended. 

After discussion, councilor John Redmond made a motion to reverse the hiring freeze and to begin refilling necessary positions. The motion was seconded by Mayor Pro-Tem Paul Engstrom, and was approved unanimously in a roll call vote.

Retroactive pay for firefighters

Howarth Terrell presented the councilors with an MOU with the Mount Shasta Fire Department, and addressed the unpaid work firefighters did while on standby. 

“Back in 2018, we had an ad-hoc committee that worked on getting equity to the fire department; one was standby fees,” said Howarth-Terrell. 

Fire personnel who were working standby since the MOU was passed were being underpaid for their services, Howarth Terrell explained.

“Part of the problem was that they didn’t realize that they weren’t being paid ... Finance didn’t have it together either, so we’d like to rectify the mishap and pay these folks correctly,” Howarth Terrell said.

The back-owed money would come out of the 2020/2021 budget, and, according to Howarth Terrell, adds up to more than $37,000 over two years.

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“I want to get this rectified,” said Redmond. “If it’s fixed, it gets everyone happy and on the same page.”

Council member Jeffery Collings expressed concerns regarding where the money will come from and suggested holding off until the city’s budget was finalized.

While Collings agreed the underpaid department should be retroactively paid, he expressed a concern “given our uncertain financial condition.” He mentioned that the city is currently  not funding local programs, such as the senior nutrition center’s Meals on Wheels program, or the visitor’s center.

“This was a definite underpayment, and the money is owed,” said Howarth Terrell. 

“This has been a miscalculation,” said Redmond. “I feel like we should take care of it now. This is a mistake that has been happening since before COVID. If it were my own employees, even if I were strapped for cash, I would be doing it.”

At the end of the discussion, councilors voted to change the wording of the MOU to reflect the new rate of pay for standby, and voted unanimously to begin the process for retroactive payment.