Proposed no-tax-hike city budget begins to be reviewed next week

It looks as though natural gas impact fees of about $1 million coming from the Marcellus Shale industries are one main reason Mayor Gabriel J. Campana can present a proposed $21.8 million budget that doesn’t include a real estate tax hike.

“Without the money, we wouldn’t have been able to do the road and housing projects we had planned for this year and next year,” said City Councilman Randall J. Allison, a member of the city Finance Committee, a week before the planned budget work sessions begin.

Allison added such impact fees can’t be used to reduce pension costs or personnel costs nor can they pay for the city’s operations.

The proposed budget includes an estimated $2.4 million surplus and maintains 11.58 mills of real estate tax collected or $1,158 a year for a house assessed at $100,000, according to William E. Nichols Jr., city finance director.

Taxes, such as property, wage, mercantile and others are expected to generate about $16.4 million.

Besides the natural gas contribution, police and fire union concessions and the administration’s switching over its management of healthcare to a consortium are saving the city a $1 million or more over the past two years as well as long-term legacy costs, Nichols said.

“Recent labor negotiations with fire and police contribute to a healthier bottom line by keeping down pension and healthcare costs as they relate to next year’s non-tax-increase budget,” Nichols said.

For example, the city isn’t planning to enter into arbitration with the city fire department unionized workers, saving at least $100,000 in costs, Nichols said.

An agreement on a police contract caps pensions for those hired under the contract at the rate of a starting officer, or $42,000 a year, he added.

Personnel additions

This year, the city added two employees to the codes department that were not budgeted for, an excavation supervisor and a codes enforcement officer.

Next year, the city plans to add two more codes officer employees and a truck driver to the city Streets and Parks Department.

The largest expenses are in the police and fire department proposed budgets, with fire at $6.4 million and maintaining a complement of 33 firefighters, three of whom are command staff, according to Fire Chief C. Dean Heinbach.

The police is budgeted is $8.1 million, up from $7.7 million this year due to wages, salaries and requests for cruisers and upgrades to technology, according to city Police Chief Gregory A. Foresman. The complement fluctuates from month to month, depending on retirements, but the city can use a $419,000 U.S. Department of Justice COPS Hiring grant to pay for two officers for three years. The city pays the final year’s expenses for the officers, estimated at $160,000 to $200,000, Foresman said.

Work sessions planned

In the first budget work session, council reviews budget proposals for River Valley Transit, the mayor’s office, Streets and Parks Department, and other funds such as capital projects, liquid fuels, debt service and City Hall operation. The second meeting includes review of the proposed spending plans for police, fire, codes, council and city clerk, among other lower budgeted items.