By PETER HUSSMANN
After nearly three hours of discussion by the Newton City Council on next fiscal year's proposed budget only one thing is clear: it's final form is foggy.
Newton City Administrator Bob Knabel presented the council with an overview of his budget proposal that calls for a 15 cent (1 percent) increase in the levy - an increase resulting from the city's full accounting of its state-mandated employee pension costs within its trust and agency account rather than past practices of accounting for some of it within the general fund.
In addition, the budget proposal calls for the establishment of a 27 cent "emergency levy" with the approximate $120,000 generated annually to be used to implement projects and programs identified in the city's recently adopted Comprehensive Plan.
If fully enacted as proposed - which appears extremely doubtful following Monday's discussion - a homeowner with an assessed value of $100,000 would see city taxes rise by $53.13 over last year's city tax bill. The increase is exasperated by the 4 percent increase in the residential rollback this year, a state-ordered move that increases the percentage of the value of a home upon which property taxes can be placed.
Council members looked at a number of ideas to reduce the levy, including cutting several suggestions for upgrades at City Hall, as well as improvements for the city's audio/video system that televises council meetings over Mediacom. Most of the remaining $4.5 million in proposed capital equipment needs was left intact.
Council members were reluctant to the suggestion to use $80,000 in remaining Whirlpool funds to finance the television broadcast upgrades, noting that it might be a better course to look into livestreaming council meetings through the city's web site. A suggestion that Mediacom be required to pick up the cost as part of their franchise agreement with the city that comes due in September could result in the local access television channel going dark.
Members also balked at the $35,000 cost of reinstituting the quarterly city-mailed newsletter to all Newton homes. Reducing the number of editions or distributing them at public facilities and local retailers were also suggested.
The big issue, however, was the "emergency levy" for implementation of the Comprehensive Plan.
While council members generally agreed with the importance of the Comprehensive Plan and how instituting its long-range vision should be supported, they appeared somewhat reluctant to the full 27 cent "emergency levy" as proposed, suggesting that maybe a lower rate would be more appropriate or that funding be found within current revenue streams.
In response to a council question about the requirements of its use, it was noted that the council would be required to pass a motion for its establishment and then seek state approval for its use. A state board comprised of the Director of the Department of Management, the State Auditor and State Treasurer, or their designees, would have final say on its allowance. More than half of all Iowa cities now use an emergency levy for some purpose.
One suggestion made was to reduce the city's ending balance from its estimated 26.2 percent to the 25 percent threshold that would continue to keep the city's bond rating in a strong position. It was estimated that reduction would provide approximately $160,000 in additional funds, money that could go toward the institution of the Comprehensive Plan without the "emergency levy."
Other council members suggested that staff look at ways to make the levy "revenue neutral" as much as possible due to the 4 percent increase in the residential rollback that generates additional tax dollars even if the levy rate is unchanged from its $14.99 rate today.
Council members directed city staff to further define next year's budget and provide an update to the council by Thursday so that further discussion can be held at Monday's meeting.