Mayor G.T. Bynum listens during a recent City Council meeting. In putting together the city’s fiscal year 2018 budget, Bynum and the council have agreed to try to reduce the impact on employees of rising health-care and pension costs. KEVIN CANFIELD/The Frontier

G.T Bynum is a new mayor with an old problem: It’s budget time, and the city doesn’t have enough money to cover anticipated cost increases.

That’s bad news any year, but this year the mayor — with City Council support — has chosen to complicate the equation by prioritizing funding for employee salaries and benefits.

Bynum and his staff are looking for $8 million to $9 million to cover anticipated cost increases in employee health insurance and pension contributions. Some of the funds would go to pay satisfactory performance increases to employees who qualify.

None of the funds, Bynum hopes, will have to come out of employees’ paychecks. But a more likely scenario, he acknowledges, is that the city will bear the brunt of the costs and minimize the impact on its employees.

“That is going to be an arduous climb to get there,” he said, “but it is a worthy goal, and we will try. But it is going to be a steep hill.”

The $8 million to $9 million Bynum is searching for represents 3.4 percent of the city’s anticipated 2018 general fund budget of $268 million. To find that money, Bynum went to his department heads.

“I just said, ‘Here is what I think we need to cover our pension costs to make sure we are being responsible on that front and to cover our health insurance projections and potentially to cover satisfactory performance increases,’” Bynum said. “‘And if you can identify the percentage that you would need to reduce in your department in current expenditures to cover that.’”

Bynum also asked department heads to look for ways the city might raise revenues. But it hasn’t been easy. Use and sales tax collections account for about 66 percent of general fund revenue, and sales tax collections are inconsistent at best. In recent years, they’ve been declining or flat.

In the last 15 years, city sales tax collections have grown an average of 1.13 percent a year  — less than half the average rate of inflation over that period.

City Finance Director Mike Kier said the city would have an additional $20 million in its general fund account this year if over the last decade and a half sales tax collections had kept up with the rate of inflation.

Overall general fund revenues,  meanwhile, have grown just $8.4 million, or 3.3 percent, over the last decade, according to the city.

With salaries and benefits accounting for 75 percent of the city’s general fund expenditures, there is little wiggle room when it comes to cutting costs. Yet year after year, administration after administration, the city has tried to do just that.

“You are dealing with departments that have been told for the last pretty much 10 years, on an almost every year budget cycle, ‘Hey, cut 5 to 10 percent out of your budget,’” Bynum said. “So there is not a lot of giant travel budgets left or, you know, gold-seated toilets. That stuff already got cut years ago, and so where we are now is very much whittled down to personnel that we have.

“And it is kind of self-defeating if you’re saying we want to take care of our employees but the only way for people to do that is to reduce the number of employees. That is not the point of the exercise.”

Bynum’s cost estimates are based on a projected 10-percent increase in employee health insurance costs and the need to increase contributions to the employee pension system by 4 percent. The cost to provide performance pay increases could vary widely, depending on how many employees qualify and what their salaries are.

Most years the city and its 3,400 employees share such cost increases. But not always. Last year employees had to pick up all of the increase in health-care premiums.

That is exactly the scenario Bynum is trying to avoid. Before taking office in December, he visited with some of Tulsa’s leading employers, including QuikTrip, to see how successful businesses are run. One take-away from those meetings was that valued employees make better employees.

“It is easier to recruit great people to your enterprise if you are known as a place that treats people the right way, and your employees do better work if they are treated the right way,” Bynum said.

The mayor knows that prioritizing funding for employee salaries and benefits doesn’t guarantee those funds will become available. So he’s looking for some sustainable, long-term ways the city can reduce costs and raise revenues.

On the cost-cutting side of the equation, Bynum and his staff have been working with a health-care working group made up of city councilors and city employees to explore ways to cut costs and improve employees’ health.

The working group is gathering information from local businesses, consultants and experts to learn how other organizations handle health care.

“We’re really looking at all the options, from different configurations of fully insured plans, self-insurance, different clinical approaches (and) addressing healthy outcomes more holistically,” said Jack Blair, Bynum’s chief of staff.

One company the working group has met with is Bama Company. Employees there, Blair said, have access to clinics around town where they can obtain commonly prescribed medications or see a physician to address primary care needs. A similar program is used by the Tulsa Police and Fire departments.

The working group visited one such clinic, CareATC, last week.

“It just kind of takes the burden of what would go through a claims system and encourages folks to address issues early so they don’t become more severe and more costly and debilitating to employees,” Blair said. “We are also looking at things like cost transparency tools. There are a lot of emerging technology that help employees identify the best cost for a particular service.”

When it comes to revenues, the mayor remains bullish in his belief that the only way city revenues will grow is if the city grows. As the population increases, so does economic activity and the sales tax collections that come with it, Bynum has argued since his days on campaign trail last year.

“We recognize what the problem is and the problem is Tulsa hasn’t been growing for 20 years,” Bynum said. “And so the effort that we have related to education, that we have related to economic development, that we have to make Tulsa regarded as a safer place through implementing the Vision (Tulsa) public safety program  — all of these are around this overarching goal of getting Tulsa growing again.”

A city budget can change on a dime. For now, Bynum and his staff are basing their calculations on projections included in the second year of former Mayor Dewey Bartlett’s 2017-2018 budget. Bynum’s actual budget numbers won’t be made public until late April, when he presents them to the City Council.

Who knows what the revenue numbers will be then.

“With your revenue projections, you rely on the most recent data you can right up until you present the budget, and our budget team is still working on what those will be,” Bynum said.