The city of Newton’s 2014 budget could include a 7 mill increase, with funding for additional positions in the Fire/EMS and police departments.
Commissioners discussed the 2014 budget at a work session before their regular Tuesday morning meeting. The revised budget has an estimated tax rate of about 53 mills, up from about 46 mills for 2013.
Commissioner Leroy Koehn said he appreciated the difficult choice that was before the commission.
“It’s a pretty tough position to take,” he said. “This is not something I want to do. It does hurt some of the folks. … Sometimes these are decisions that just have to be made.”
The revised budget includes additional funding for a new police officer position and a training/performance manager for the Fire/EMS department. It also has cuts to external agencies: a 50 percent reduction for Health Ministries (reduced from $50,000 to $25,000), and a cut of $20,000 in the Newton Chamber’s funding.
Pam Stevens, the Chamber's interim executive director, advocated not cutting the Chamber funding. She said the Chamber’s goal is to help local businesses and raise sales tax dollars for the community. Without city funding, the Chamber may have to look at cutting staff, finding a new, cheaper location for the Chamber office, or cutting down on programming.
Commissioners talked about different options they could pursue to deal with the budget. One scenario proposed was closing one of the city’s fire station locations. Newton Fire/EMS Chief Mark Willis said closing one station would drastically reduce his department’s ability to provide services. Closing a station would negatively impact response time, and homeowners could see an increase in the cost of insurance policies. Willis said it’s important to have stations on both sides of the railroad tracks, and dropping staff levels also could force the department to refund grant dollars.
“It would be a very difficult proposition,” Willis said.
Commissioner Jim Nickel proposed charging the Rec Center for water. He said the contract is not enforced now, and the city is somewhat unique in that it owns the school’s facilities for sports.
“I think the whole district ought to pay for that,” he said of the Rec Center’s water bill.
Commissioner Glen Davis said he did not want to see a negative impact to the Rec Center.
“We have some of the nicest ball fields in town,” he said. “... I don’t want to see those ball fields start deteriorating.”
Commissioner Bob Smyth said it is difficult to make taxes “fair.” He wanted to see city staff who live out of town take a pay cut because they would not be as impacted by a tax hike as those who live in town.
Page 2 of 2 - “If it’s fair for us to pay it, it’s fair for them to pay it,” he said. “… I’m not willing to go after somebody and not everybody.”
Koehn was concerned that policy could result in lawsuits.
Koehn said he has been told by constituents not to raise taxes but to maintain services. He encouraged community members to share better solutions if they had ideas.
Lunda Asmani, assistant city manager for budget and finance, said it is challenging to provide the same level of service for less money.
“You can’t cut the budget without cutting the level of service,” Asmani said. “You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say ‘don’t raise taxes, and don’t cut public safety.’ You’re asking for an impossible task.”
Commissioner Racquel Thiesen asked commissioners to consider another side of the discussion. She said they had talked about those who are opposed to a tax increase but not those who would support a tax increase to maintain services.
“There are two sides to this story, and we always talk about just one,” she said. “We’re building a community for 20, 30 years (in the future). The decisions I make today impact that. I’m willing to make that hard decision. We never represent the good side of that equation.”
Commissioners will continue to discuss the budget before making a final vote.