FD council passes budget on split vote

Months of wrangling with budget figures came to an end Thursday when the Fort Dodge City Council OK’d a roughly $64 million spending plan for the next fiscal year.

The budget includes a property tax hike that boosts the levy to $20.82 per $1,000 of taxable value. That 90-cent increase, prompted by rising employee benefit costs, was the source of debate before the council voted 6-1 to approve the budget.

Councilmen Kim Alstott, Dave Flattery, Andy Fritz, Dean Hill, Robert ”Barney” Patterson and Don Wilson voted in favor of the budget. Councilman Mark Taylor voted against it.

”The long and the short of it is that the majority, if not all of it, is related to the pensions and health insurance,” Patterson. said of the tax increase.

Wilson, who participated in the meeting via a telephone call from Florida, asked if anything was being done to prevent a property tax hike next year.

”We’re trying to forecast employee benefit expenses that we don’t control the cost of,” Mayor Matt Bemrich replied. ”The only way to really reduce that is to reduce your work force. It’s difficult to say there’s something we can do.”

Bemrich said the possible options include negotiating union contracts that require employees to pay for a share of their health insurance premiums. The new contract with International Association of Firefighters Local 622 requires the firefighters to pay 8 percent of their insurance premiums. When that contract takes effect July 1, the firefighters will be the only unionized employees paying a portion of their health care costs.

Bemrich added the city could lobby the state Legislature to change the pension laws for city employees.

Taylor said he believes the council was left with just two choices as a deadline for finishing the budget loomed: laying people off or raising taxes.

”I’d like to see a little bit more openness and maybe get an update every other month,” he said.

”Our predictive analysis on this has to be quite a bit more accurate,” he added.

City Manager David Fierke said that last year during the preparations for the current budget he presented the option of a property tax increase designed largely to deal with the trend of rising health care costs. That increase was $20.36 per $1,000 of taxable value. The council decided at that time to keep the property tax rate unchanged at $19.92 per $1,000 of taxable value.

”We told you last year what was going to happen and it happened,” Fierke said.

”There’s not a whole lot more predictive analysis we can do,” he added.

Flattery said growing the city’s tax base is the ultimate solution to improving the budget.

The budget approved Thursday is for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and ends June 30, 2014.

It calls for spending $64,380,356.

That spending level is down from the current budget of $103,421,647. The current budget includes about $40 million worth of water and sewer work that will be done before the next fiscal year begins, which largely accounts for the difference in spending.

The property tax rate of $20.82 per $1,000 of taxable value will mean that owner of a home valued a $85,000, the median value in the city, will pay $920.

The budget includes a 3 percent increase in sanitary sewer bills. That hike was approved by the council last year.

The budget also anticipates a 2.5 percent increase in water bills. That increase still must be approved by the council.

Spending on the city’s water and sanitary sewer systems will rise significantly in the next fiscal year to meet the demands of servicing the agricultural-industrial park now known as Iowa’s Crossroads of Global Innovation. For example, the electrical bill for the John W. Pray Water Facility on Phinney Park Drive is expected to double to $600,000 annually.

The budget pays for the current staffing of 40 police officers and 31 firefighters. It does not include money for hiring a new director for the Department of Business Affairs and Community Growth, so City Engineer Chad Schaeffer will continue to have oversight of that agency.

The spending plan contains $1.3 million for trucks and equipment needed to implement a new sanitation collection system that will enable residents to put all their recycling materials into one container without sorting them.

About 10 vehicles will be purchased, including three police cars, three light duty trucks for the Public Works Department, two garbage trucks, a 1-ton capacity truck (also for Public Works) and a vehicle for the city engineer’s office.