After hearing input from community members at a budget hearing Tuesday night, Newton City Commissioners passed the 2014 budget, including an estimated 5 mill tax increase.
The vote was three to two, with Mayor Jim Nickel, Racquel Thiesen and Leroy Koehn voting for the budget proposal.
The budget hearing drew a crowd of about 250, and Koehn thanked community members for coming to share their thoughts on the budget.
“I would like to thank everyone that’s here tonight. That shows all of you care, and we all appreciate that,” Koehn said. “We all have varying opinions and perspectives on life, and I would encourage those of you who want to share what you’re for to get up and share that.”
Glen Davis and Bob Smyth voted against the budget proposal. They also presented the city with a check for $500, volunteering to personally split the cost of the rental of the Meridian Center for the budget hearing.
“I have made suggestions on how to cut the budget," Davis said. "With the way the economics are at this time, I think we need to make some adjustments. We probably wouldn’t be in this mess if we hadn’t invested in some of the things we’ve invested in.”
Before the hearing began, Lunda Asmani, assistant city manager for budget and finance, shared information on the budget process. He said the city commission conducted five work sessions to talk about the 2014 budget and look at different spending options.
He said the city's general fund is the largest operating fund; about 80 percent of property tax dollars go to this fund. In the general fund, about 70 percent is used for police, fire, EMS and streets.
Asmani said various factors have made budgeting an increasingly challenging process. He reported the state has cut assistance to cities and counties, and the city also has seen a loss of interest revenues due to the economic downturn.
The city has tried to compensate by using reserves, delaying equipment replacement, freezing employee cost of living increases, and eliminating and combining positions, resulting in at least $1 million in savings.
Asmani said cuts and increases in the budget are ultimately the city commission's decision.
“The budget is not administration’s budget," he said. "It is the commission’s budget. ... It is a vision of where they want this community to be.”
During the budget hearing, commissioners heard from members on both sides of the mill increase debate.
Jim Jackson, a retired fire/EMS employee, said he had concerns about spending on projects such as the golf course, the Meridian Center and the logistics park. While he was not opposed to the projects, he thought better planning needed to take place. He also had concerns about water rates and going into debt.
He said he felt city officials had not listened to his ideas as a community member.
“What are we to do when no one listens?” he said. “... If any of us were running a business like this, we would be broke, and our doors would be closed.”
Greg Nickel presented a different viewpoint on the tax increase.
“I don’t really enjoy paying taxes, but I also understand the challenges here,” he said.
He compared paying city taxes to paying a cell phone bill. He said the bill may be expensive, but he also likes having the service.
“I like a lot of the (city) services I get, and there are many people in Newton like that," he said. "... We like the town we have.”
The city's estimated tax rate in 2014 will be 50.845 mills. This will return the property tax rate to 2001 levels. An increase of five mills will have a tax impact of about $60 per year on a $100,000-value home.