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City to zero out tax-rate increase

By Maura Wery

City commissioners decided Tuesday evening to schedule another budget work session to reduce a proposed 26% property tax mill levy increase to zero.

Commissioners have spent several budget sessions over the past month reducing the proposed levy, which as of Tuesday was 43.699 mills.

The question commissioners will have to confront is what spending levels they want to reduce in order to eliminate that final .26 mill increase, which translates to about $125,000.

The overall budget is envisioned to be about $131 million, up from about $122 million this year.

Commissioner Wynn Butler called for removal of a proposed Manhattan Fire Department training officer position and reducing city contributions to some social services. Butler said the elimination of the officer position would save around $81,000. For social services, Butler suggested four different options, among them an across the board increase of 1.7 percent for five agencies viewed by the Social Service Advisory Board as critical and a cap on other requests.

Such a cap would cause some agencies, such as University for Man, to receive no funding from the commission at all, saving around $20,000. 

Butler also suggested funding the Wolf House out of the economic development fund, changing the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau contract, and adjusting expenses paid through the city-university fund.

Commissioners Karen McCulloh, Usha Reddi and Rich Jankovich had some serious reservations about cutting the training officer at the Manhattan Fire Department, suggesting that could be dangerous.

“The main function is consistency,” Manhattan Fire Chief Scott French said. “It’s so all the people are trained in the exact same way. There will be no difference in how things are being done.”

French said the training officer would also be responsible for training the department on high-rise fires, asserting that taller buildings are becoming more common.

Butler and commissioner John Matta both wondered whether the training tasks could be accomplished with existing resources. “Do we really need to train another person?” Matta asked.

“There is no difference in how things are being done now,” French said. “When we lost that position two years ago, it went to the health and safety training officer, so they are doing a lot of work.”

McCulloh and Reddi want the city manager and the department heads to determine whether they need a position, rather than having the commission make that decision for them.

“The city manager and department heads are the best at making those decisions,” Reddi said.

For social services, the commission also seemed divided.

“I think from the state and federal level there will be more of a need,” Reddi said about such services. “We need to take a closer look at that before cutting it as much as suggested.”

Butler defended his proposal, saying that “growth for 1.7 percent isn’t a cut and is reasonable.” He said if a social service wants a 7 percent increase, the city might as well do the same for Public Works in order to fix streets and other pressing issues.

McCulloh said it’s hard to put a dollar figure on the things social services support. “It saves us big dollars in police, destruction of public property and they should be supported by the way the Social Service Advisory Board sees fit,” she said.Ultimately, the commission decided they wanted departments to meet again and see if they could make their requests cheaper.

The results of that meeting will be reviewed at a final work session before publication of the budget.

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