City eyes avoiding mill levy increase

By A Contributor

City commissioners told staff Tuesday they want ways identified to reduce the 2014 budget in order to keep the mill levy as close to current levels as possible.

Commissioner Karen McCulloh said she wants to see a proposed 2.741 mill levy increase reduced below one mill. City officials are proposing a $131.18 million spending document for 2014, representing a $9.3 million increase from the current-year budget.

Most of the proposed levy increase is attributed to the general fund, with the remainder attributed to the special revenue funds. The bond and interest fund is expected to see a reduced levy attributed to the renewal of the Riley County half-cent sales tax.

Finance director Bernie Hayen said .524 mills in the special revenue fund would be to fund a new fire truck for the new fire station. He said the new truck would cost the city about $250,000. Commissioner Wynn Butler asked why the city had to purchase a brand-new fire truck, and why the city could not look for a used one.

Hayen said .320 mills in the general fund were associated with hiring more people for the airport, fire department, water department and city administration.

Hayen said the airport staff wants two people, one office assistant and one technician. Those salaries would equal $51,842 a year. The fire department also wants a chief training officer to supervise training of the firefighters at about $60,000 a year. Butler said the training officer was unnecessary.

He said in his own experience training officers in the military are not necessary except at the battalion level, which includes about 350 people.

He said the city fire department did not have that many firefighters staffed and current “chain of command” could take on the responsibility of training.

The other position Butler disputed was an assistant to the city attorney, which he viewed as unnecessary, saying the city did not have that much legal work. The projected salary for an assistant is $68,646 a year.

Hayen said the city also needed an information systems support specialist at $38,750 a year. He said the support specialist and the assistant city attorney could be “budget neutral” if the city chose not to replace a high-ranking city officialwho he suggested is retiring this year. Hayen did not specify which employee would be retiring, and city officials refused to comment.

The combined total salaries for the five positions is $219,238, which would be paid out of the general fund and covered by property taxes.

Hayen also said the water department needed more help in the form of a sewer maintenance technician and a utilities modeling analyst. Those combined salaries would be about $77,474, and covered by the wastewater, water and stormwater funds. Those are paid through water use fees.

Several business owners and landlords spoke during open comments asking commissioners to keep the levy flat for this year. Chris Darrah, owner of Dara’s Fast Lane, said he closed two businesses because he could no longer afford the taxes to keep the buildings in use.

Calvin Emig, owner of Wildcat Property Management, said residential property owners have less of an impact than commercial owners. He said if the city raises the levy 2.741 mills that would be equivalent to a $1,182 increase in taxes on one of his properties, based on valuation and how taxes are calculated on commercial property.

He said residential property owners are assessed at 11 percent of the house’s total value, but commercial property owners are assessed at about 25 percent of the total value, making business owners’ taxes much more sensitive to levy increases.

He said the city needed to follow the example of the state legislature by cutting its budget rather than increasing it.

“It’s not about spending more, taxing more and having more,” he said. “It’s about time to realize we don’t have more; we have less. You need to think about spending less.”

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