NORTH LIBERTY– North Liberty officials had a first look at the fiscal year 2014 draft budget, and the city’s property tax levy is expected to remain the same.
However, proposed increases in water and sewer rates and an increased rollback from the state likely means more will come out of residents’ pockets anyway.
On Tuesday, Jan. 15, North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar presented a proposed budget to the council, with city department heads there to answer questions. Even with adding staff, making a few major equipment purchases and staying on track with the city’s capital improvements plan to upgrade streets, maintain infrastructure and save for future facility expansions, Heiar suggested the city could do all this and keep the city’s property tax rate at $11.03 per $1,000 of assessed value.
Therefore, with the state’s rollback of 52.8166 percent of assessed value (up from 50.7581 percent in 2011), a home valued at $200,000 would pay $1165.13 in city property taxes in the upcoming year.
It was a difficult draft budget to craft, Heiar told the council, because of the $16 million loss of overall assessed value the city experienced when the state passed a law in 2011 that reverted certain undeveloped commercial properties back to their agricultural assessment values. Therefore, Heiar asked department heads to scale back proposed spending, and they came through, he noted, trimming more than $749,000 from their original budget requests.
Major purchases proposed for the streets department in the upcoming budget include construction signs, a backhoe, a heavy duty truck– with one of their older trucks being purchased by the parks department– a flatbed trailer and a $60,000 vacuum trailer that will be shared with other departments, expenditures to be paid through the city’s Road Use Tax fund. The parks department proposes to purchase three new mowers, as well as repainting the city’s tennis courts and repairing pedestrian trails near the West Lakes development.
The city’s wastewater facility is in need of equipment to keep the city’s lift stations running properly and its manholes in good condition, as manholes cost between $10,000 and $30,000 to repair. In addition, the city continues to prepare for the eventual replacement of the plant’s high-tech, wastewater treatment membranes by setting aside $95,000 annually. Finally, another full-time staff person will be added to that department, a recommendation North Liberty Wastewater Superintendent Dave Ramsey has been making for three years, Heiar said.
The water department’s major budgetary needs include repainting one of the city’s older water towers, a project with a whopping $330,000 price tag, proposed to paid through short-term borrowing and repaid over five or six years.
“It’s not about aesthetics,” said Heiar. “It’s about the integrity of the facility.”
Water Superintendent Greg Metternich said about one third of the cost is for containment curtain to keep debris contained during the sandblasting and painting process.
While the tower has been inspected regularly and spot maintenance has been done, “that tower has not been painted since it was built in 1995,” said Metternich.
To help fund expenditures in these departments, Heiar is proposing to raise residents’ sewer and water rates; Heair’s budget shows rate increases each year to cover anticipated costs of future plant upgrades. Fox Engineering is currently conducting a study on both plants and is expected to present its findings soon.
“I think it’s safe to say with both the wastewater and water (facilities), improvements will need to be made,” said Heiar. “Therefore, rates are going to have to go up.”
On sewer bills, the base rate would remain the same at $23.57 per month, but the rate per 1,000 gallons used would increase by 22 cents, from $4.40 to $4.62. It means a resident using an average of 5,000 gallons in a month would pay an extra $1.10 on the bill.
Water rates are also expected to increase; keeping the base rate of $12.81 steady, the rate per 1,000 gallons used will increase by 48 cents. Therefore, a resident who uses 5,000 gallons in a month will likely see an additional $2.40 on his or her water bill.
In the public safety areas, the city is planning to add a half-time police officer to the North Liberty Police Department in January 2014, to bring the total number of officers to 17: 13 patrol officers plus the chief, assistant chief and a department investigator. In addition, the department currently has two part-time officers who work around 25 hours per week to help fill in shifts when officers are sick or on vacation.
According to North Liberty Police Chief Jim Warkentin, a formula created by the Training Force USA recommends a city of North Liberty’s population to have a department of 19 officers.
Also included in the police department’s budget is $33,000 to outfit a new police patrol car.
“All our cars are equipped with digital cameras, and that has helped with citizen complaints,” said Warkentin. “Something down the road is to look at is going to body cameras for bike officers or special assignment officers, with cameras right on the (officers’) uniforms. The University police currently does that, and it has brought the complaints down to about zero.”
In North Liberty’s volunteer fire department, the estimate for a $400,000 fire truck that was proposed for last year’s budget is coming in at around $500,000 instead, due to rising costs of production and technology, said fire chief Eric Vandewater.
The building inspection department has asked for $25,000 to purchase another vehicle for its construction inspectors, Heiar noted.
Still up in the air is whether or not the city will hire a rental inspector to oversee rental properties in the city. Municipalities of 15,000 people or more are required by the state to have a rental inspector.
“Our goal would be to get that position as revenue-neutral as possible,” Heiar told the council, with inspection fees covering the salary.
Department head Tom Palmer told the council last year’s building permits had almost reached the record numbers seen in 2006.
Council members Chris Hoffman and Coleen Chipman said they think a rental inspector is needed right away, instead of waiting to hit the population threshold.
“It is something that provides some safety back up to the city,” said Hoffman. “I don’t see why we don’t pursue that individual soon, rather than waiting.”
“I concur,” said Chipman. “It provides a service to citizens.”
Council members Gerry Kuhl and Terry Donahue said they were not in favor of hiring a rental inspector right away, but Donahue suggested incorporating the position into the inspections already conducted by the fire department once the city hits 15,000 people.
Palmer said the rental inspector would also handle nuisance complaints, such as parking problems, buildings in disrepair, and other areas where citizens are not following the city’s municipal maintenance code.
“Then I would like to see more a comprehensive job description,” said Donahue.
In other departments, the library is proposing to hire a part-time page, while the recreation department needs to replace a van that transports children to and from its Before and After School childcare program. The recreation department will also continue its practice of $15,000 aside money annually for eventual replacement of its cardio and weight lifting equipment. Finally, an aging heater needs to be replaced in the city’s swimming pool, at a cost of around $30,000.
The council has several spending requests yet to be discussed in upcoming budget work sessions, including how the city will satisfy its goal of increased public transit options, the amount of support it will provide to the North Liberty Community Pantry and the North Liberty Family Resource Center, whether it plans to increase compensation amounts for the mayor and councilors’ positions, and if they should launch a branding process that would give the city consistency in the look of its promotional materials, an expense Heiar estimates at around $50,000.
Another thing the council will consider is charging fees for credit card payments made to the city, as processing fees from the third party administrators are going up.
The city’s next budget work session is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 29, at 6:30 p.m. The meeting is open to the public.