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Public safety in the budgetary spotlight

Additional revenue is coming into NLs coffers, but a property tax increase hangs over the discussion of next years budget
Lt. James McDonald (left) and Firefighter Alex Place check their truck at the start of their 12-hour shift with the North Liberty Fire Department (NLFD) April 3, 2019.

NORTH LIBERTY Growth by a city can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, more housing and more businesses mean more tax revenue for the city. On the other, an increase in demand for city services quickly consumes revenue. And often, debt is incurred by the city to pay off new expenses over time.
For the City of North Liberty, the first discussion of the Fiscal Year (FY) 2022 (2021-2022) budget by the city council on Tuesday, Jan. 19, illustrated the effects of growth upon the community.
City Administrator Ryan Heiar reported a nearly 7 percent growth in taxable value in 2020, significantly higher than the 1.3 percent growth experienced in the previous year. In a memo to the council members, Heiar noted the growth had been anticipated for the new fiscal year as the Citys TIF (Tax Increment Financing) valuation shrunk, shifting the total tax valuation by $19 million. The increase will provide the city with roughly $500,000 more in general fund property tax dollars being collected in FY22.
In his memo, Heiar explained the proposed budget (still a work in progress) includes general fund revenues of $15.058 million, nearly $1.3 million higher than the current budget.
But city staff would like to use $94,000 from FY20s surplus to fund a general fund deficit in FY22. The surplus would also be used to cover several one-time expenditures rather than draw from the general fund. And, a proposed tax increase of $0.29 would push the property tax rate to $11.32 per $1,000 in valuation. Heiar attributed the tax increase to new debt coming online to pay for the new police station.
In a brief overview of the general fund expenditures, Heiar said while utility costs (associated with the new police headquarters building) have gone up, the overall budget request by the police department does not have any significant changes from last year. A $10,000 contract for a comprehensive study of the departments contacts with the public is included as part of the citys ongoing efforts to improve equity and social justice. Police Chief Diane Venenga initially wanted to add a lieutenants position by promoting from within, and hiring a new patrol officer to fill the vacancy the position would create. However, Heiar asked her to strike that proposal as, Our revenues just werent allowing for such a position this year. Venengas budget request does include replacing two patrol cars as part of the departments vehicle replacement schedule.
The departments 2020-2021 (FY 21) budget is $3,051,164 and Venenga is asking for $3,231,530 for FY22.
The North Liberty Fire Department continues to transition from an all-volunteer (paid per call) staffing model to that of a combination department with part time firefighters supplementing the volunteer staff. Currently a paid crew of two firefighters is on-duty Sunday night through Thursday night from 6 p.m. until 6 a.m. the following morning. Fire Chief Brian Platz, following a multi-year phased plan, would like to expand part time coverage to a pair of weekend day shifts (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.).
The department also recently added a fulltime training officer, which was budgeted at 50 percent in the current years budget, and needs to be funded at 100 percent next year. Heiar noted there was some hope of receiving a grant to help fund the training officer position. After purchasing a new tanker (a truck used to shuttle water to fire scenes where there are no hydrants) and a new pumper last year, the chief is hoping to replace the departments brushfire truck in FY23 (at an estimated cost of $300,000), and is looking toward replacing the departments aerial ladder truck in FY25. A second fire station and pumper for the new station are slated for FY24.
The departments FY21 budget is $875,565 and Platz is asking for $1,006,956 for FY22.
Heiar turned to utilities and said the Road Use Tax Fund (a tax on the sale of gasoline and road use diesel fuel collected and distributed by the state) remains strong while funding significant construction projects. However, he and his staff advised the council to delay any further projects until a surplus is established.
Sewer rates should remain the same for the second year in a row while a 2 percent increase in the water rate may be necessary. City staff will reevaluate in April or May before bringing a final recommendation to the Council however.
The Council meets at 6:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month and meetings can be viewed online. Agendas, minutes, videos, and documents are available on the Citys website at https://northlibertyiowa.org.