Mayor’s budget plan gives council a lot to chew on

City Council has more than turkey and trimmings to digest over the Thanksgiving holiday.

On Tuesday night, Mayor Gabriel J. Campana submitted a proposed $25.4 million city budget for 2017. For taxpayers, the proposed budget indicates a property tax hike of 0.35 mills, or about 1/3 of 1 mill of real estate tax.

The city generates $880,000 from 1 mill of real estate tax, according to the finance department. The 2016 budget carried a 1.89-mill real estate tax increase. That equated to a $189 tax increase for a property owner with a house assessed at $100,000, said William E. Nichols Jr., city finance director.

The proposed increase up the rate to 14.82 mills, which means a taxpayer with a house assessed at $100,000 would pay $35 more per year, or $1,482 under the mayor’s proposed budget.

Departmental requests are $23.2 million, which is up $502,084 from this year, a 2.2 increase, Campana said, giving more context for the difficulty of trying to achieve a no-tax-increase proposed budget.

“The 2017 proposed budget, as in the past, presents significant challenges because of mandated budget increases related to bargaining unit contracts, rising health care costs (estimated at 6 percent) and the ongoing levee certification,” Campana said.

Campana said he and his staff worked diligently on a proposed budget and limited a tax increase by developing a budget questionnaire that provided an opportunity for all city department stakeholders and council to provide input into the budget process.

“That was helpful,” Council President Jonathan Williamson said following Tuesday’s council meeting. He and others were appreciative of this approach toward council by the administration, but some said department heads were prepared even earlier to release their requests but were held up.

The proposed budget, Campana said, initiates a public safety plan that provides more flexibility to assign police officers where and when needed.

“Therefore,” he said, “more officers will be on the streets.”

It adds $100,000 to the general fund budget and uses state and county liquid fuels and Community Block Grant funding to resurface streets, which is a high priority concern for taxpayers, especially while many streets are in poor condition as gas line replacements took place this year and milling and permanent base repairs won’t occur until next year, Nichols said.

The proposed budget shows spending $1 million toward flood levee recertification. The money was part of a $2.5 million line of credit the city approved this year, Nichols said. If the levee isn’t recertified to specifications by the Army Corps of Engineers, then the Federal Emergency Management Agency won’t certify the levee, and mandates require those protected by it to pay annual flood insurance premiums.

It’s an unfunded federal government mandate that has burdened the city since 2012, said Campana.

The proposed budget keeps services the city taxpayers have come to like. For example, it enhances the recreation program, provides a second full season related to operating Memorial Pool (Splash Cove) and keeps two summer park programs, representing a net cost of less than 1 percent of the government budget, Campana said.

The department employs a full-time director, Jessie Novinger. It also assists those putting on Victorian Christmas, which is considered a tourist attraction and economic tool, Campana said.

The proposed budget provides funding for a Park Avenue Planning study, as this section of the city between Hepburn Street west toward Susquehanna Health facilities is on the radar for neighborhood improvement and zoning changes.

The proposed budget anticipates $350,000 in natural gas drilling impact fees from the state and $400,000 in savings from the city switching to a health care cooperative several years ago.

“It restores general government funding for the purchase of parks equipment, technology upgrades, police vehicles and street reconstruction projects,” Campana said.

It offers funding to pay for a new engineer to be assisted and work alongside John Grado, who is retiring officially in July after 35 years of employment with the city.

Nichols’ concern is with the city’s reserve account, or fund balance, of $137,390.

“Our city should ideally have a reserve of between 5 to 15 percent of the budget,” he said. “This is less than 1 percent.”

“The only way to increase the fund balance each year is to increase taxes or decrease staff or services,” he said.

“We intend to keep all services and staff,” Campana said.

Nichols noted the continued lack of revenue from taxable parcels. Assessed value of taxable properties has shrunk over the past two years, he said.

In 2014, the total assessed value of taxable properties was $961 million. It’s estimated to be $957 million next year, he said.

“What that means is a $4 million to $5 million loss because of fewer taxable parcels,” Nichols said. “There’s been no growth in real estate,” he said.

In addition, the city is anticipating $75,000 of annual payment from the Williamsport Parking Authority. The authority will decide whether to donate that to the city general fund at its budget meeting in December, said Dr. Anthony Cipolla, authority chairman. It has given that much to the city over the past four years, Cipolla said.

Department costs continue to increase based on salaries, pensions and health care.

The city police department, which is negotiating a contract for one that ends Dec. 31, has a projected budget of $9.1 million, which is about $253,000 more than this year, according to the proposed budget summary provided by the office of fiscal services and budget.

Police expense is about 40 percent of the overall budget. Of that amount, $8.4 million goes toward salaries and benefits for the estimated proposed budgeted complement of 51 officers.

The city fire proposed budget is $6.4 million, with a complement of 33 firefighters, which includes three command staff. It is estimated to increase by $133,771. It accounts for 28 percent of the proposed budget.

Public Works Department, formerly the Streets and Parks Department, has a proposed budget is at $3.6 million, and is expected to keep its staff around 26 individuals, according to Nichols.

The Bureau of Codes has requested $986,737.

Campana’s salary is about $70,000 with two part-time assistants.

City Council’s proposed budget differed over the increases in health care costs, which are provided to council. Health care costs for council are estimated at $158,000.

Council holds two budget work sessions, the first at 7 p.m. Dec. 5 and then Dec. 7, before it holds a first reading of the proposed budget at its meeting at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8.