Budget: City must make tough calls

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Community Ed, historical society get help

It if were any tighter, the thing would squeak.

Monday night, the Storm Lake City Council gave preliminary approval to a 2006-07 fiscal year city budget of $42.8 million. It would bump the tax levy up slightly - about 15 cents per $1,000 property valuation, but with the rate of mandated rollback continuing to increase, the city will actually take in less of a tax bite. The average homeowner would see their residential tax payment decrease a bit.

"It gets down and dirty when you have to tighten up," Mayor Jon Kruse said of the budget. He applauded city staff for creating a document that meets the city's priorities without suffering any major losses in public services.

The budget looks titanic next to the current year's svelte $17.98 million, but reflects the construction and beginning operations costs for Project AWAYSIS.

City Administrator Patti Moore said the budget was crafted - and then re-crafted - to meet the goals stated earlier by the city council, to appropriately compensate city employees, and to minimize the economic impact on the taxpayers.

The city saw only a 2 percent increase in assessed property values, and the increasing rollback means the city will only be able to apply property tax to $45,000 worth of the value of a $100,000 home - factors that combine to mean that tax revenue will decline by several thousand dollars from the current year even with the modest proposed tax levy hike.

Under the proposal, the average homeowner would pay $15 less in taxes to the city, while the owner of a $100,000 commercial property pays about $4 more.

Fees are also proposed for increases to help balance the city budget. Zoning request fees, some golf course fees and cart fees, car impound payments and some library fees including a doubling of daily late fines (pending approval of the library board) are projected.

City non-union employees would get an average of 3.59 percent pay increases for 2006-07, with salaried employees getting 3 percent more. This will put payroll at about $3.6 million, a total cost increase to the city of $167,000.

New in the budget is hiring Rebnord Technologies to serve as a computer systems service and consultant expert for the city's systems. Moore said that the cost at $16,000 would be less than hiring an in-house computer guru.

There are some pretty deep cuts in the budget too - such as eliminating all out-of-state travel for employees for such things as training, and elimination of funding for the vehicle fleet - one element that does worry Moore. The city will also allow no supplemental funding requests for ongoing efforts in its departments, and will not be able to afford to hire a new code enforcement officer.

Costs for the year rise, reflecting higher projected fuel costs and the first couple of months of operating the lodge and waterpark in Project AWAYSIS, which are expected to open in spring 2007.

Despite tight money, the council had a heart when it came to funding outside agencies.

All those currently funded were projected to get the same amount as the current year, with the council denying any new funding requests. After some discussion, both the historical society and CommUnity Education got a little extra funding added in.

The funding breaks down as follows:

* Community Education - requested $69,880, funded at the current level of $57,625 in the budget proposal. The council later reconsidered and boosted that to $60,125, to cover half the cost of providing a raise for CE workers to match that of city staff. CE will be left to seek the other half of the wage increase from its other funding partner, the Storm Lake schools. Councilman Denny Vaudt noted that what the agency offers is sometimes left entirely up to cities elsewhere, and said that the large number of youth and adults touched by the educational offerings make the funding a good investment. "I don't think we can overlook Community Ed for too long," Vaudt said.

* BV Historical Society - requested $3,000, but as a new request was scheduled to get nothing. The council decided to scrape up the money, in part to make amends for the moving of the schoolhouse and log house museums from the lakefront to make way for Project AWAYSIS. The funds will be used to cover costs associated with the moving, to purchase a lawnmower for the new site, and publishing a new brochure advertising the new location.

* Council on Aging - requested $3,200 and will get that amount, the same as the current year. The group funds the Senior Citizens Center, which the city has pledged to replace.

* Chamber of Commerce - requested $2,750 for new Christmas decorations, $10,000 toward making Santa's Castle disability accessible, and $73,700 for tuckpointing of the Santa's Castle building. As new requests, all were turned down. City crews may do some work on the Castle building to delay the need for a full tuckpointing project until the city can afford the work.

* Northwest Iowa Alcohol and Drug Treatment Unit - requested $2,000, and as it is not currently funded, got nothing.

* Storm Lake Area Development Corporation - requested $55,000, and got the current amount, $45,000. It also gets $12,360 for work with the empty spec building, and if that building is sold, SLADC gets any remaining funds of that amount for other uses as it wishes. Moore noted that the city needs to encourage new business development in order to bring in additional tax revenue to help fund other programs.

* Witter Gallery - requested $20,000, and gets the current amount, $15,749.

* Transit - request and allocation is $10,000.

City officials also had to delay some scheduled purchases, although some alternate funding was found for fire department gear needs. "We would not send our people out without proper safety equipment," Moore said, noting that if some gear must be replaced, the city may have to make concessions elsewhere.

If revenue should come in over what is expected, council members said that late in the fiscal year, they will consider returning some funding to previously scheduled purchases.

Moore noted that it will seem strange to some that the city must cut its budget at a time when the community can take on a $30 million project AWAYSIS. But, as she pointed out, the city promised not to spend its budget on AWAYSIS, and in the long run, the project is expected to generate new revenue for city coffers.

Councilman Vaudt noted that the tight budget is not only being felt in Storm Lake, and that the city is fortunate to not have to cut millions in services as some cities are. Administrator Moore added that Storm Lake department heads have been "very cooperative" in helping to hold the line in a critical year for the city's future.

Mayor Kruse said he "dreads the day" when cities are forced to make major services cuts in order to balance budgets, and said that cities will have to hope for new policies from legislators to prevent that.

A budget hearing is scheduled for March 13, 5 p.m. The public meeting will be held in the council chambers of Storm Lake City Hall.

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