Proposed city budget calls for $9 million increase

By Corene Brisendine

City commissioners focused on proposed mill levy increases and street maintenance during a discussion of the proposed 2014 budget Tuesday.

Finance director Bernie Hayen told commissioners if all the departments, agencies and boards were given their wish list of increased spending, it would raise the levy by 2.741 mills in 2014. The total proposed budget is $131.1 million, an increase of $9.3 million over the current-year $121.8 million budget. The general fund is proposed to increase from $25.99 million to $27.69 million, up 6 percent.

The proposed 2.74 mill levy increase is largely fueled by a doubling of the existing 2.371 general fund mill levy. Hayen said those increases would fund salary adjustments, employee health insurance increases, capital improvement fund increases and other needs.

In previous years, levy increases have been primarily due to the portion of the levy associated with funding the Riley County Police Department. But the RCPD Law Board this year actually lowered its levy by .34 mills. The bond and interest levy is also proposed to decline.

The increases this year appear to be linked to capital improvement requests. Hayen said for the past couple of years the city has not increased its capital improvement program spending in an attempt to keep property taxes at a minimum. As a result, he said the city staff, roads and other spending have been neglected.

Were the city to approve the 2.7 mill overall increase, that in concert with this year’s average 3 percent valuation increase would mean about an $80 increase in the average homeowner’s tax bill. That bill would go from about $874 this year to about $954 next year.

One of the potential new general fund obligations would be street repair. Hayen said the gas tax is the main source of income for that work, but over the past five years gas tax income has remained flat while the cost of materials for paving and repairing the road has gone up.

He proposed moving $42,733 in general fund money — either from the property tax or sales tax — to the street fund to pay for those increased costs.

Commissioner Karen McCulloh appeared to be in agreement with the idea of increasing the street repair fund through general fund revenues if necessary. “Fixing it well is better than patching it 40 times,” she said. “It is more cost effective in the long run to fix it right.”

City manager Ron Fehr said in order to fix the streets correctly, the budget for street repairs would have to “double or even triple.”

Commissioner Wynn Butler echoed McCulloh’s sentiments on the roads. He said he considered street maintenance one of the core functions of city government and said the city needed to ensure the streets are well maintained.

Commissioner Rich Jankovich suggested a separate work session on street repair and its budget.

“We need to do this right and skin the cat from there,” he said.

As for increasing the mill levy, Butler said there were several requests for studies that he thought were outrageously priced and unnecessary.

He said the Historic Resources Board has requested $65,000 to hire a consultant to study the Community House for alternative uses of the building.

“That seems like an astronomical amount of money to pay consultants to do planning,” he said.

He said he found about $400,000 worth of such requests in the budget and would like to see that money put to use elsewhere or cut. He asked city staff to provide a “menu items” list of the funding that could be cut. He said the city needed to prioritize its needs and wants better to do what was best for the community.

Butler said he thought the city needed to do more to cut travel budgets for employees. He said last year the city sent 12 people to the Chamber of Commerce meeting in Overland Park, and he thought that was excessive. He said he went, but he paid the travel expenses out of his own pocket because he believed it was his burden, not the city’s. He said he did not want the city to cut travel expenses associated with training for the fire department or travel associated with training.

McCulloh said she also thought the 2.741 mill increase was “a little high” and was confident the commission could get that increase under 1 mill.

Commissioner Usha Reddi said she would like the city to “retain good employees and not be a stepping stone” for city employees to get better paying jobs elsewhere.

Commissioners did not take action during Tuesday night’s meeting because it was a work session. The next budget work session is scheduled for June 11, and is expected to focus on utility rate increases.

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