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NL City tax rate will likely stay the same for fifth year running

Council to approve final budget in late February

NORTH LIBERTY– Once again, in the face of major street and infrastructure projects, the City of North Liberty is expecting to keep the city’s overall tax rate the same.
If the proposed Fiscal Year 2016 (FY16) budget is approved, property owners living in North Liberty will continue to see a rate of $11.03 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for the fifth year running. The same rate has been levied since Fiscal Year 2012, when it dropped from $11.20.
From the city’s constant growth and a higher-than-expected level of state backfill to supplement losses from the commercial property tax rollback, revenues allowed the North Liberty City Council to work through its Jan. 13 budget presentation and Jan. 20 Capital Improvements Plan (CIP) discussion with relative ease.
The largest cost to hit the books for the upcoming year will be an expansion of the city’s wastewater treatment plant, at an estimated $15.3 million, which will upgrade the facility to accommodate a future population of about 28,000 people.
Proposed street projects for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1 and ends June 30, 2016, include the reconstruction and widening of Penn Street from Alexander Way to I-380, with an estimated cost of about $1.8 million, and improvements to the intersection of North Liberty Road and Dubuque Street, where the Iowa City Community School District (ICCSD) will build its third comprehensive high school. That project, estimated at $3.8 million, also encompasses upgrades to North Liberty Road all the way to the Fiords entrance, as well as improvements to Dubuque Street.
A few new personnel are requested in the new budget: the increase of one part-time library position to full time; two more part-time employees for the library; another person in the building inspections department; a half-time employee for the city administration office and one full time police officer, in addition to another officer already slated to be added this year through a three-year Community Oriented Policing Services grant, bringing the department’s roll to 19 officers.
Council member Annie Pollock asked if that staffing ratio was sufficient for the town’s growing population.
“Currently it’s enough, but it’s going to depend on the calls for service coming in,” Venenga said. “We are trying to be more conservative in bringing our officers on. We need to make sure we can maintain the vehicles and also have the space available to bring them into the department.”
Venenga said when officers are out for training or who are assigned light duty because of surgery, it can be a problem.
“It puts our staffing lower than what it should be. I wish I had couple more bodies to replace these officers who are out of patrol,” Venega said.
The public safety category included other significant purchases for the police and fire departments: $8,200 for an upgrade to squad car patrol cameras and $100,000 to begin replacing the fire department’s outdated Self Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA) gear.
A few technology updates are among the budget requests for the coming year. The city plans to spend $70,000 for records management software, which will provide city staff with the ability to electronically archive paper documents and create a searchable database. Eventually, as more components of the system are purchased, the database could be made available to the public, said Assistant City Administrator Tracey Mulcahey. North Liberty Television will spend $30,000 for the first in a two-phase upgrade to its playback system, components that broadcast city news and meetings to cable television. City council members and Mayor Amy Nielsen will be getting new iPads to manage meeting documents and Library Director Jennie Garner has requested a collections management software, at about $54,000, that will integrate the library’s e-book offerings and give more functionality and independence to patrons who wish to manage their check-outs, fines and renewals online, among other features.
Other larger planned purchases are: three vehicles to replace outdated squad cars in the North Liberty Police Department, at a total of $106,000; a $146,000 mower/tractor for the Public Works Department; two pick-up trucks for the Water Department (totaling $76,000); and a dump truck, vacuum truck and grader for the Streets Department that total $270,000. In addition, the North Liberty Recreation Department will add a $25,000 bus to allow the Before-And-After-School program participants to take out-of-town field trips.
When it came time to discuss salary increases, the council voted 3-2 to move into closed session. According to City Administrator Ryan Heiar, the group left the session with a general consensus to give a three percent across-the-board cost-of-living increase to union and non-union staff.
While the general tax rate will not increase, North Liberty residents and business owners will be paying more out of pocket in the upcoming year due to an increase in the residential rollback and rate hikes in the city’s water and sewer utilities.
With the planned expansion at the wastewater treatment plant, a brand new water plant in the works and accompanying upgrades to the city’s water mains, water tower and sewer lines, city officials are preparing for $21.6 million in water expenditures and $22.4 million wastewater expenses on the not-so-distant horizon. To bring more revenues to both utilities, proposed for FY16 is a nine percent rate increase on sewer bills and a six percent rise in water rates. The rate increases would be applied to both the base rate for water usage and the gallons used.
Heiar offered some projections for how the rate hikes would impact average households. For homes that use about 5,000 gallons per month, bills would go up by a little more than $6 per month total.
Unfortunately for taxpayers, the state also increased the residential rollback from 52.82 percent to 54.4 percent in FY2016.
After the residential rollback is applied, a home with an assessed valuation of $200,000 would owe approximately $1,200 in city taxes alone for FY2016. With the state’s 90 percent commercial rollback, a business property valued at $300,000 would owe about $2,978 in taxes.
The council is not expected to have any further discussions on the budget until it schedules a public hearing, which will not take place before Feb. 24, said Mulcahey. The state requires all municipal budgets to be approved and filed with their respective counties by March 15.
Councilor Pollock thanked the staff who attended the Jan. 13 meeting to answer questions about departmental requests.
“The goal setting helped set the platform for this and I appreciate everyone’s due diligence. It’s comprehensive, it’s meeting the needs. Great job overall,” Pollock said.
A complete budget packet and copy of the CIP can be found on the city’s website at northlibertyiowa.org/government/city-council, by clicking on the City Council Agenda link.