Ames budget hearings show departments’ highs and lows of 2020

Danielle Gehr
| Ames Tribune

After three days of budget hearings, the Ames City Council will make final budget decisions for the fiscal year 2021/2022 Tuesday. 

The council finished up three back-to-back meetings which encompassed seven hours of city departments sharing the last year’s accomplishments, future projects and how they faired in an unprecedented year. 

The last opportunity to give feedback will be 5:15 p.m. Tuesday at the city council’s budget wrap-up meeting. 

“I always enjoy this time because I hope you come away agreeing we have a talented and dedicated group that we’ve assembled to be our executive leadership in this organization,” Ames city manager Steve Schainker said. 

The city was tasked with creating a budget while uncertain of what impact the COVID-19 pandemic will still have at the start of the next fiscal year in July. The budget also had to account for revenue losses due to COVID-19.

Stay informed with the budget process

  • Read the budget draft here 
  • Read the Capital Improvements Plan here. 
  • Watch the budget overview here 

Hotel/motel industry losses meant less tax revenue for the city’s operating budget and a “devasting effect” on the Ames Convention & Visitor bureau. The city’s finance department also projects a 4% growth in the local options sales tax, said finance director Duane Pitcher, which he attributed to an increase in online shoppers.

Residents will have a property tax decrease of $0.27 and a 6% increase to water utility rate, 2% less than what was predicted a year prior, according to the budget draft. 

The council will also approve the Capital Improvements Plan which outlined several big projects ahead of the city. The city plans to build a new aquatic center as the current municipal pool is set to be demolished next year — though this has not yet been added to the plan. Ice skating downtown may be possible next winter with plans for a downtown plaza.

“It seems that each year, as I prepare my budget transmittal letter to the City Council, I am struck by how increasingly difficult it has become to meet both the service expectations of our residents and their equally fervent desire for us to reduce their property taxes and utility fees,” Schainker wrote in the budget draft.

City departments impacted by the events of 2020

During the week’s hearings, department leaders shared the unique ways COVID-19 affected their operations.

Parks and recreation received $1.5 million less in revenue than was predicted after program participation dropped.

The department also saved money with the pandemic forcing programs to close and the city reducing temporary staff hires. The city hired 272 temporary workers in 2020, down from 456 in 2019. 

Parks and recreation director Keith Abraham said at Wednesday’s meeting the ice arena was hit the hardest of all their programs with Iowa State stunting programs like broomball and hockey, the city limiting participation for open skate sessions and a reduction in ice rentals. 

The derecho also caused issues for the department, causing the loss of about 100 trees in the parks system, Abraham said, though they may find more that were impacted. His department has also planted 1,000 trees since 2014, however. 

With higher than expected costs, $600,000 of the general fund was needed to replenish their Park Development Fund.

The pandemic also had an effect on CyRide’s data. CyRide’s ridership was down 65% due to students not returning to campus after spring break in 2020 due to COVID-19 and many opting for virtual classes in the fall, according to the budget draft.

With CARES funding, the city will be able to maintain $2,037,720 in funding for CyRide.

Water and pollution control director John Dunn said the water usage data reflected the events of the year. 

The water usage hit a 30-year low in the month of April after many students did not return from spring break and Iowa State shifted to online. The summer drought caused the water usage to spike in the opposite direction and hit an all-time high for water usage.

“Through all of that, I’ve got to give credit to the staff of the facility who operated it and maintained it,” Dunn said. “Of course the derecho had a huge impact on us when that occurred, keeping the facility up and running, so I’ve got to give a shoutout to all the staff.”

Staff finds new ways to serve community, mitigate COVID-19 spread

As the community struggled waiting for normalcy to return in 2020, the city staff found ways to offer services while remaining COVID safe. 

Ames library director Sheila Shofer said at Tuesday’s meeting the city’s decisive action during the pandemic helped them adapt to the safety measures. 

“With a shared purpose, staff could shift gears and quickly adapt our services to a virtual environment,” Shofer said.

Sensing unemployment anxiety in the community due to job losses caused by the pandemic, the Ames Library added job search tools such as Mometrix, a test prep website for both higher education and trade professions, and Cypress Resume, Shofer said.

The library also started online storytelling sessions to offer entertainment to children while still social distancing. After the derecho, the library’s hotspot checkout became even more popular as many waited for their power to return.

The library also decided to follow other libraries’ example and eliminate charging late fees, a loss of $90,000 in annual revenue.

The parks and recreation department sent out two surveys during the pandemic to understand what would make people most comfortable.

“They really got some good information from our users in regards to precautions we can take, safety measures we could take, what people were willing to do and not do,” Abraham said. 

Abraham said at the Wednesday hearing they held outdoor and virtual classes to engage the community while staying safe, including a parkour class. Abraham showed photos Wednesday of children attending dance and gymnastics in their masks. 

For city documents, council agendas and information on future meetings, visit for more information. Find recordings of past meetings or watch future meetings live at 

Danielle Gehr is a politics and government reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at [email protected], phone at (515) 663-6925 or on Twitter at @Dani_Gehr.

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