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Fire assessment remains budget wildcard

August 7, 2014
Pine Island Eagle

The city council will soon have to decide whether to send tax bills to residents, even as the controversial fire service assessment continues to hang in the courts.

Meanwhile, the heads of the fire, police, parks and public works departments stressed the need to continue capital improvements in a city that neglected them for years when the economy tanked.

Those were the messages sent during a budget workshop Thursday at city hall. In the end, the city council seemed mixed on what option to consider, while another council person said there was an option the city manager did not consider.

City Manager John Szerlag gave the city council four options, with the elected board quickly bringing them down to two as Options C and D were for much less money and wouldn't have funded capital needs.

Option A would feature a millage rate of 6.957 plus a fire services assessment to fund 64 percent of fire department operations.

Option B had a millage of 7.707 with an assessment to fund 38 percent of fire department operations.

Option B was budgeted for $146.96 million, while Option A was budgeted for $146.19 million.

Both general fund budgets were close to the $150 per resident target. Option A was $148, Option B was $149.

Szerlag seemed to favor Option B as a fiscally conservative choice, seeing as the fire assessment remains hung up in court, but others said it was time to stand behind the assessment after more than a year of delays and court battles.

The fire assessment is a new tax added this budget year. It essentially funds a portion of fire services operational costs, which previously were funded with property taxes. By adding the new tax and shifting costs into the new assessment, there was more money left in the property-tax funded general fund for other things.

Council chose to budget that money - less a related tick downward in the property tax rate - towards capital projects such as road repaving.

Meanwhile, a group of residents challenged the methodology under which the city computed the assessment levels.

The state Supreme Court has yet to render a decision.

"We need to put this on the tax bill and not on a paper bill. This issue will come up again in seven months," Councilmember Richard Leon said. "It's important that we be behind it."

Councilmember Jim Burch said both options were good budgets, though he would prefer to lower the millage as part of Szerlag's "three-legged stool" approach to financial sustainability

"I want to make sure the city is sustainable. I don't want to hear about hiring people through reserves," Burch said. "I'm not looking at politics here."

Rana Erbrick discussed a third option of using the rollback rate, which would bring in the same amount of money as last year, lower the millage, and still bring most of the money the city needs to continue sustainability, which is in the $144 million range.

"The rollback would bring in $1.5 million more than the year before. We're making sure our dollars are spent wisely," Erbrick said. "The big issue is whether this will be on the tax bill. We have to wait for the Supreme Court decision when they get off hiatus,"

Szerlag's presentation asked pretty much the same questions as last year: What level of service do you want? He got the heads of four departments to help answer that question.

Police Chief Bart Connelly, Fire Chief Donald Cochran, Public Works Director Steve Neff and Parks and Rec Director Steve Pohlman all agreed there is a need to replace old, worn out vehicles and equipment and to improve the city's infrastructure.

Their arguments were aided by Fleet Manager Paul Cook who said many of the city's vehicles had more maintenance put on them than the cost it was to purchase them, with some going as high as 150 percent of the purchase price.

"We need to be more proactive than reactive. 150 percent is not where we want to be," Neff said. "We're spending, but on the wrong side of the fence. We need to find the sweet spot and sell then."



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