In the end, four of the five city commissioners for the city of Newton could not stomach a mill increase to support the 2020 budget.
“I am not for raising the mill levy at all,” said Commissioner Glen Davis. “I have heard from a lot of people in the community, and they think we need to be tightening our belts and living with what we have for the next couple of years.”
That comes on the heels of increases in the mill levy for the past three years — three years that city staff said have put the city in better financial standing as reserve funds have been constructed and departments placed at “minimum staffing levels.”
This year, however, was more challenging as the budget was created. Increased bond and interest payments, the result of ballooning bonds that will retire in a few years, equaled five mills of levied taxes. At one point, Davis and commissioners were looking at a possible eight mill increase to the levy.
After property evaluations increased about 3 percent, that increase dropped to five — enough to cover the increase to bond and interest. Three weeks ago, the commission voted to publish a $53.8 million budget that contained a 3.08 mill increase, with the agreement that the commission would have a work session to discuss possible budget cuts and adjustments before passing a final budget.
That work session was Tuesday.
During that work session, city staff and the commission discussed the elimination of a position, but not the duties, of a historic preservation officer. That move would, according to documents given at the meeting, save the city about $71,000.
But more savings will have to be found.
“I think that where we are right now, at 3.08 and below, there is work ahead,” said Commissioner Barth Hague. “This gives us an opportunity for productivity in the areas we want to see it. … None of these models, projected out over several years, look very good. At some point, a future commission will have to face the music on that. Is the only way out to drive more revenue, or do we really need to go back and say 'what are essential services?' … Either way, they are hard choices to make. We are into an era of hard choices.”
Staff circulated a document showing about $250,000 in savings, made “strategically” rather than a percentage cut across the board. That line item was labeled “find additional budget savings.”
“I applaud the $250,000 reduction. For me, the number that I think is fiscally responsible is a 2 percent decrease of $420,000, done in a surgical way,” said commissioner Leroy Koehn.
It was unclear Tuesday what some of those would be, or when they will be announced and created.
“You set the number, and we have to live with it,” said city manager Bob Myers.
A worksheet provided to the commission did show a reduction in ending balances/reserve funds — at 0 mills that fund could be reduced to about 10.9 percent of the budget. That is below a 15 percent balance set by ordinance.
“I do not want to see us dip down any more than we have to in our reserves,” said Mayor Kathy Valentine. “We have an ordinance that we do not go below 15 percent. … I know what we went through in 2015 and 2016 and tightening our budget. It takes a toll.”
Projections provided during a workshop show that with a flat mill levy this year, the city budget will head to a negative ending balance by 2022 — with the city at $1.3 million in the red. Without adjustments to the budget, the city is projected to be $6.4 million in the red, annually, by 2024.
In other business, the commission:
• Recognized Robert and Elizabeth Pomeroy as owners of the yard of the year.
• Approved a temporary alcohol license for a beer garden for the Sand Creek Summer Daze Festival.
• Approved the issuance of taxable industrial revenue bonds for an expansion of Park Aerospace.
• Directed city staff to draft a T21 ordinance to limit the sale of tobacco/nicotine products to those age 21 and older.
• Approved the hosting of a public hearing for the creation of a Rural Housing Incentive District for a project on S. Anderson Ave.
• Approved the acquisition of right-of-ways on Hillside.
• Approved the sale of a property on E. Sixth to a neighboring property owner. The property is currently used for a community garden, which is being relocated to a church elsewhere.
• Tabled the purchase of property for the construction of a new potable water tank.
• Approved an extension of a tax abatement for an expansion by Future Foam that has been delayed as a result of wet weather earlier this year.
• Extended a lease for a parks division building at 205 S. Meridian for one year.
• Approved a proposal for design of a new park division and cemetery maintenance facility. Staff received seven proposals from architectural firms to design a facility on South Boyd. GLMV Architecture was selected from those proposals. The goal is to have the building completed by December 2020.