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Proposed budget good news for fans of status quo

NORTH LIBERTY– The North Liberty City Council got a sneak peek at next year’s budget numbers last week, and the good news is things are holding steady.
Most significantly for North Liberty taxpayers, if the proposed budget does meet with council approval, the city’s property tax rate is expected to remain unchanged, at $11.03 per $1,000 of assessed value before the state’s rollback formula is applied.
City Administrator Ryan Heiar walked the council through the first of its annual budget work sessions on Tuesday, Jan. 17. Leaders from all city departments were also in attendance to answer any questions council members had about departmental requests and expenses.
Two major expenditures proposed in the FY13 budget include improving Dubuque Street’s surface with a new overlay– $205,000– which will be funded through the city’s share of Road Use taxes distributed by the state, and constructing a $2.2 million Streets Department shop, funded through a combination of Road Use tax revenue bonds and general obligation bonds. Also on the list are improvements to North Front Street/Mehaffey Bridge Road, at just over $1 million, and $200,000 for the Phase II design of Jones Boulevard reconstruction.
In the public safety arena, Heiar proposed adding a 13th officer and a seventh squad car to the North Liberty Police Department.
Across the street, the North Liberty Fire Department needs to replace an aging fire truck ($400,000 that will be funded through the department’s Fire Capital fund), install a $33,000 concrete pad for training purposes, replace several breathing apparatus units ($52,000) and install an exhaust removal system in the fire department garage, estimated to cost around $50,000. Also, an All Terrain Vehicle (ATV), costing around $17,000, is needed for responding to calls in less accessible areas of local campgrounds and state parks. All of the fire department’s proposed expenditures will be funded through the department’s own capital reserve fund.
Recreation and leisure activities should see a lot of financial support from the city this year, with about $120,000 to be used from the general fund for updated equipment, maintenance and repair at the North Liberty Community Center. A $300,000 generator is proposed to be funded through state grants and a general obligation bond. About $84,000 in repairs to the aquatic center facilities will be paid through the department’s capital reserves fund.
Outdoor recreation is also a top spending priority, with a proposed $250,000 for development of a west side park and green space for public use, and about $350,000 to build a new concession stand at Penn Meadows Park. Around $75,000 will be spent to install a new play structure at Quail Ridge Park. The costs for all three projects is proposed to be borrowed through a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) bond.
Besides the additional police officer, only a couple of staff positions were expanded or added. The library requested another part-time page to help with its increasing volume of returns, and Heiar proposed bring City Attorney Scott Peterson aboard full time.
Peterson was hired as city staff at three-quarters time last year as a cost-saving measure. Heiar told the council last week that the city could save even more money if Peterson’s position was made full time instead.
In a subsequent email communication, Heiar listed several ways in which having a full-time city attorney would benefit the city, including assuming the responsibility for prosecuting simple misdemeanor and multiple infraction cases (for example, when a citizen challenges a traffic ticket or other city-issued citations), and prosecuting or defending small claims cases, which are legal services currently contracted to the assistant city attorney position. So far in this fiscal year, North Liberty has expended about $11,000 in outside legal fees, and FY12 is not over until June.
In addition, Heiar wrote, a full-time attorney will be more regularly available to the city’s council members, mayor, city staff, police officers and other employees, will allow for training opportunities for city staff on potential legal issues and will increase the attorney’s visibility to the public.
If approved, the salary for that position would increase from $82,000 now to $110,000 in FY13.
All personnel wages and benefits have yet to be discussed or approved by the council, with those decisions scheduled to be hashed out in a second work session Jan. 31.
Overall, North Liberty’s financial position remains strong, Heiar said. The city’s general fund expenditures are estimated at $7,991,184 for the fiscal year ending June 2013, while revenues are projected at $7,991,327. It’s a mere $143 difference, but the city’s general fund is currently carrying a cash reserve of about 28 percent of its total budget, and will maintain a reserve of 26 percent– or a little over $2 million– in the next fiscal year, if all numbers remain unchanged in the upcoming budget work sessions.
Heiar said after the meeting he thinks the city is in great financial shape.
“Despite making major investments into our transportation system, parks and facilities and increasing the level of services provided to the public, the City has been able to grow its once dangerously low general fund reserves to over $2 million and still maintain a steady tax rate,” Heiar said. “With adequate cash reserves and an aggressive debt repayment plan our bond rating remains very strong. This city council has done a tremendous job of balancing the needs of the community with the concerns of the taxpayers by accomplishing very important, long-awaited projects with minimal impacts to the City’s tax levy.”
All numbers presented last week are preliminary until the public hearing and the council’s final vote, anticipated to be held sometime in late February. A finalized budget must be certified with the Johnson County Auditor’s Office by March 15.