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Council begins to define budget priorities

Thursday, May 7, 2015 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Despite needing to fill a 5 to 6 percent hole to bring the city’s revenue in line with what it spends, City Council members continued to bat around a mix of ideas Wednesday about how to generate that money.

At the second of several meetings held before adopting the budget in September, Council members heard again from Greg Canally Ed Van Eenoo, the city’s deputy chief financial officer, about the channels through which the city receives its revenue and how his office has projected these will grow. While Canally’s Van Eenoo’s office has projected a 1 percent increase in what he called “other” revenue, such as fines and fees one might pay to a library, the main source of the city’s money comes from utility charges and property taxes.

According to a presentation to Council in late April, the city expects expenses to grow by roughly 6 percent. The city’s Financial Services Office has proposed generating more money through property taxes. Although the tax rate would be lower, because of soaring property values the city is estimating that homeowners will pay roughly $7 more per month.

Council began to discuss Wednesday how its decisions on generating the remaining 5 percent would define it. Some said they did not want to see utility and property costs increase for residents.

“If we want to say we’re going to be the Council that truly addresses affordability, and truly steps up to the table and says we’re going to hold costs down so that we don’t have to have those increases that come forward, how do we have that discussion?” asked Council Member Sheri Gallo. “All (the public is) hearing at this point is discussion on a budget that would increase their utility bills and increase their tax bills.”

Gallo’s comments came after Council Member Ora Houston brought up the concerns of her District 1 constituents. “People in my district have gotten their appraisals, and they are outraged already,” she said, adding that she has yet to open hers for fear of what it will show.

Council Member Don Zimmerman questioned why Council was not instead talking about scaling back spending in order to fill the hole. He suggested identifying and cutting superfluous workers.

“You always end up having people in departments and positions that really honestly are virtually worthless,” said Zimmerman. “Those people could stop showing up for work and not get paid and no one would notice.”

According to the financial forecast presented to Council two weeks ago, city staff is proposing a 3 percent wage increase for city employees. At the same time, staff directed city departments to draw up budgets that include a 5 percent reduction in costs, which some say would force cuts in staff. Staff will present those budgets to Council next week.

Mayor Steve Adler, however, reiterated the point that Council has the most power over the city’s property taxes, and that might be the only option available to catch up to the city’s nearly 6 percent increase in spending.

“Most of the revenue sources that we have are increasing at a rate below that (6 percent),” Adler said. “Sales tax below that, transfer from energy below that, transfer from water is below that. The fees, even with the increases, are below that. So the driver we have available to us is the property tax.”

This story has been corrected.

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