Back to work on the Council: Fees and taxes

I didn’t exactly stop working on City issues over the summer, but my interest in blogging about them evaporated entirely.  Why sit at a computer when I could tend my green roof (planted some little bluestem grass up there today), run with my dog, pick tomatoes, go to the State Fair or do just about anything else outside?

But now it’s September, school has started, the leaves are turning, the preliminary tax levies has been set so I’m back…

By law, the Council must approve the preliminary tax levy by September 15 – that means the Council must act at its regular meeting Monday night.  Given the governor’s unallotment tactics and the recession’s impact, the City needs to make up the shortfall by cutting spending (and services) and/or raising taxes and fees.

So far, we’ve been doing pretty traditional budgeting starting with last year’s numbers and reducing spending across the board by freezing wage and step increases (See the News), cutting staff by attrition and layoffs, asking each department to cut 10% and now figuring how much revenue we can raise via the general fund levy, HRA and EDA levies.  Our direction to staff was to attempt to keep the tax dollar amount paid by homeowners the same as last year.  This recommendation isn’t perfect – as the News reported, the impact is greater for commercial property owners (who are also burdened by a state property tax which residential property owners do not pay).

We’ve also raised some fees and added a few new ones (such as a $10 fee for proctoring exams at the Library and $200 for a 2 AM closing liquor license).  And, we are considering created a street light utility which has attracted a bit of attention in the local media here and here.    We already have water, stormwater, garbage and wastewater utilities – by creating a utility, we add an itemized fee on monthly utility bills for each of these services which goes to a separate fund for maintaining and improving that service’s infrastructure.  The advantage is to remove street light funding from the General Fund and be able to calibrate utility fees based on usage and infrastructure needs more accurately rather than simply sweeping this cost into the General Fund and into the tax levy.

An interesting discussion bubbled up at last Monday’s meeting in the context of the HRA levy.  Some Councilors were interested in raising the HRA levy beyond the requested amount and up to the allowed levy limit on the theory that, in the current economy, the City should help meet basic needs like housing.  The alternate argument was that we should stick to our plan of holding the levy to last year’s dollar amount and respect the City wide budget cutting that has been necessary, rather than trying to address this social need in particular.    More on all these another time along with some thoughts about budgeting for outcomes.

One thought on “Back to work on the Council: Fees and taxes

  1. The budget discussion has raised several interesting policy issues; the one you mention re the HRA is a valid one. It may be misunderstood since I own a DT building, but I think the discrepancy between the residential and the commercial taxes is another.
    Raising the HRA levy to due some extra good in hard times is a very good thing to do; however the council has never to my knowledge discussed the importance of the Historic Central Business District with its two foci ( ?) the ‘heart’ of the community as well as a Nationally designated Historic District which has been extremely economically stressed for some years now, primarily since the addition of the State General Tax which only commercial properties pay.

    How valuable is this Historic Central Business District to the community as a whole? Would the tourism part of NF’s economy succeed without it? Can it function as a set of building ‘museums’ supported by the building owners?

    It is always said, at council, that the residential properties “cost” the city more in services , and yet the commercial properties pay a disproportionate and heavier load. Is there a way to adjust some facets of that are within the city’s discretion?
    Example: in the new fee structure, the cost of a rental license has increased 2-3 times. Many DT buildings have apartments on the second floor; our building has five. The rental license fee used to be $125 for , I believe, three years; the new fee structure puts it at $40 for the license application and $50 for each apartment,i.e., $290, and I think that is for only two years.
    That is not a huge amount of money , but when all costs continually rise and rents continually go down, it becomes significant. Fees have been raised to come more into line with the real costs, it has been said at council. The rental inspector is in and and out of each of my apartments in less than ten minutes; the math is obvious.

    A City entity, the EDA, which is struggling with infill and redevelopment issues, as well as annexation, should have the capability to propose programs which at least might support the idea and the functioning of the HCBD, but it is difficult to get new programs past the staff, frankly.
    When the NDDC re-wrote the guidelines for the DT Revolving Loan Fund several years ago to make it more user friendly, the staff re-wrote it once again, so that it is again too cumbersome and onerous to be used. That loan is based on $$ to be used in the DT, so it’s not taking money away from other uses.
    So then that goes to an even deeper policy issue: the Council has shifted the responsibility of all of the Economic Development Director’s salary to the EDA budget. I think it is rather unusual for an entity to pay all of an employee’s salary, and yet have no say in the hiring of that employee. I think the 50/50 split was much more fair, and yet in the budget discussion, that particular issue (pay, but no say) did not arise.

    As much as I deeply appreciate the policy issues you bring up, Betsey, and I do SINCERELY appreciate that, I think the council is still deeply lacking in its discussion of BASIC policy.

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