Newton City Commissioners will be considering up to a 5 mill tax increase when they vote to adopt a budget for 2014 on Aug. 13.
At their meeting Tuesday, commissioners approved the 2014 budget for publication and set the date for a formal public hearing — Aug. 13. Commissioners can still adopt a budget that is lower than the proposed budget, but they cannot vote to spend more. A five mill increase would cost about $60 a year for those owning a $100,000 home.
Commissioners were not unanimous in their passage of the budget for publication. Jim Nickel, Racquel Thiesen and Leroy Koehn voted in favor, and Glen Davis and Bob Smyth voted against.
Commissioners seemed to be divided on the issue of a mill increase.
"I don't like raising taxes anymore than anyone else in this room," Thiesen said, before making a motion to pass the budget for publication. "It's taken a lot of courage to make a motion."
"All of us are trying to do what we think is best in the community,” Nickel added.
Davis countered that he would rather see budget cuts than higher taxes.
"I'm not voting for a mill increase," he said.
Smyth also encouraged commissioners to keep the budget flat, and earlier in the meeting he made a motion to cap the budget at 2012 levels. The motion was defeated.
Commissioners heard a variety of viewpoints from the public during the meeting.
Newton resident and school board member Carol Sue Stayrook Hobbs urged city commissioners to keep Newton's future in mind as they made decisions about the budget. She said it was important to have a community that supported people of all income levels and to maintain services for those who are homeless, developmentally disabled, mentally ill or who struggle to pay for health care.
She also spoke in support of strong economic development, local businesses, the downtown area and the Chamber. She was concerned without adequate levels of police and fire/EMS protection and road maintenance, quality of life could decrease and insurance rates could increase.
“I want us to continue to look forward and look for vision," she said. "I’m going to struggle to pay my taxes. But I’m choosing to invest, and choosing to live in this community that has lower cost of living rates than other surrounding communities. ... I’m an average citizen of this community. I can’t leave this part of the country. I’m passionate about Newton. I’m passionate about the values in this community.”
Former Newton City Commission candidate Wayne Valentine presented a counter viewpoint. He said he did not want to see Newton become too much like "big cities" in the region and lose its "small town" feeling.
"Don't be so quick to say, 'If we just become like Wichita, Manhattan or Lawrence, we'll be better off," he said.
He said it was time for the commission to take a hard look at making cuts in all areas.
"There are no sacred cows anywhere," he said. "Everything is on the chopping block. We're going to do the best we can for the majority of people in Newton."
Newton Chamber board of directors President-Elect Shana Smith asked commissioners not to cut Chamber funding from the budget in 2014 — a possible cut presented during budget discussions.
She felt a cut to Chamber funding would not only hurt the downtown area, it also could hurt local banks, gas stations and other businesses that serve people who may travel to Newton for Chamber events.
“That loss of funding to the Chamber has a huge effect across the board,” she said.
Davis said he was not aware of any commissioners who had committed to making that cut, and he said he would support taking money out of the economic development fund and giving it to the Chamber.
“We know how important that $20,000 is to the downtown and how much it brings in sales tax revenue,” he said.
Koehn thanked everyone who came to speak at the meeting.
"That shows you very much care for this community," Koehn told the members of the public attending the meeting. "You're invested in it. I respect each and every one of you."
The public will have another opportunity to address commissioners about the budget at a public hearing Aug. 13. Due to anticipation of a large crowd, the event will be held at the Meridian Center, if the center has not already been booked for another event.