NORTH LIBERTY– North Liberty’s budget picture is much rosier than the last time it was presented.
On Wednesday, Jan. 29, North Liberty Council held a second budget work session to review numbers for fiscal year 2015. In December, North Liberty City Administrator Ryan Heiar had presented a preliminary budget that was more than $800,000 short of revenues. Last week, due to increases in assessed property values and meetings with city department heads to shave spending requests, the gap has narrowed to a general fund deficit of $57,730, with no anticipated increase in the city’s property tax rate.
North Liberty’s assessed property values increased from about $542 million to over $615 million, a gain of $73,000,000 and 13.5 percent over last year’s values, despite the five percent rollback on commercial property legislated in 2012 that was expected to have dire effects on muncipal budgets.
“Tax assessments came in, and I’m just very impressed with those, almost shocked,” Heair said. Because assessment values came in higher than predicted, the city was able to reduce its debt service levy, allowing an increase in the trust and agency levy and bring more money into the general fund.
“All the while keeping the tax rate at $11.03 rate we’ve been in,” Heair noted.
Heiar went through each category of the proposed $9.5 million budget, showing how various department heads had reduced their list of requests to bring expenditures down. First, the North Liberty Police Department (NLPD), while in dire need of storage, eliminated the request for a $10, 000 storage shed, opting to find storage space in the building currently under lease by the city for its administrative offices and council chambers. The NLPD is still requesting to hire a full time records clerk, though no additional officers were in the proposed budget this time.
The North Liberty Fire Department (NLFD) also trimmed back a $50,000 request to install computers in each of its response vehicle, instead planning to do the installation in phases to spread the expense over a few years.
Also withdrawing the request for additional staff was the North Liberty Community Library; originally, the library asked for a full-time staff person and a full-time page, but last week, interim library director Jennie Garner said the library is now only seeking to hire a part-time page.
The city’s building department kept its request to hire a rental housing inspector, which is a requirement for cities with populations greater than 15,000, and asked for an additional vehicle as well. In addition, the city’s parks department and water department heads have each asked to add a full time staff person.
The last request was the only sticking point for any of the council members last week, as some of them wondered if hiring seasonal summer help would fill the gaps.
Parks supervisor Guy Goldsmith said last month that his department has not added full time staff since 2009, even though the city’s amount of green space has grown extensively. It’s difficult to find seasonal help who is available for the entire growing season, Goldsmith noted, because most are college students who start late and leave early. Mowing and maintaining the city’s 236 acres of park ground, 20 miles of trails and other right-of-ways and building lawns has spread his department too thin.
Similarly, water superintendent Greg Metternich said North Liberty’s growing population hit a level that requires extensive water sampling, but the water department has not added any employees for nearly seven years, when the population was about 9,000.
An increased need for maintenance of aging equipment and the addition of a new well has caused his department to dip into overtime hours more and more each year, Metternich said.
“We paid out 555 hours in overtime last year, for over $22,000,” Metternich told the council. “Year after year, I am increasing that line item. The valve exercise is a very important aspect of the distribution system, but we’ve had no time to go toward it this summer. For the last couple summers, we devoted time to things that absolutely needed to be done, but things (other things) were pushed to the back burner. We can’t keep doing that.”
However, when Metternich indicated that other minor duties, like sampling data entry and mowing water tower sites, could be assumed by a fifth person in his department, council members Chris Hoffman and Gerry Kuhl were not convinced.
“I don’t agree with adding a water department employee if they are going to be doing mowing and other things that don’t require technical water skills,” said Hoffman. “I know there is work that needs to be done. I think the addition of an employee is warranted. This other minor component is just stuck in my head,”
“If it’s not technical work, we could hire some summer help,” Kuhl suggested.
“I don’t think you are understanding,” argued Heiar. “Yes, we could hire someone (who costs) less hourly to do it, but we are still going to be paying that extra money out of this fund to make that happen. We will bring on a full time person and easily keep them busy, but then we’re going to add an extra several thousand dollars annually to hire someone to mow.” Heair said it takes nearly two full days just to mow the grounds of the city’s wastewater facility off Front Street.
Metternich clarified that a full-time person in his department would in fact be engaged in skill-specific and plant operation work.
“What we are running into is the distribution system, said Metternich. “It’s older and is requiring a lot more time. For a lot of those jobs, I can’t just send one person out to do. There is a lot of backbreaking lifting, and we are always working on the shoulder of road, so you don’t want to just send one guy out. When you look at efficiencies, we haven’t added anyone since 2007. The population was about half what it is now. I won’t have someone out there just mowing all summer long. That’s not the case.”
“Don’t get me wrong, Greg. I want your guys to be safe,” said Hoffman. “I am just asking us to reconsider efficiencies. We don’t need to have someone who is certified to be in that plant to be sitting outside on a mower.”
Council member Terry Donahue said that since the city is planning to expand its water utility in the next couple years, now would be a good time to bring on new personnel in that department.
“I have no objections adding an employee right now because sometimes the lowest man on totem pole has to be the grunt,” said Donahue. “With the city spreading out more, along with a new plant coming on, your folks are going to be very busy. This is a good time to add a person now because I bet within two years he won’t be low man on the totem pole.”
Finally, another major expense proposed for the upcoming year is the cost of conducting a special census. Much of a city’s eligibility for money from the state is factored on its population, such as revenues from road use tax. Since an official census is only taken once every 10 years, growing cities like North Liberty can benefit financially from a mid-term special census.
Heair said a special census would cost around $160,000, with the expense coming out of the city’s general fund.
“This will be paid for within a year, based on the numbers we have,” said Heair.
Heiar spent time reviewing the city’s capital improvements plan, which showed no significant changes. The plan lists an estimated $73 million in planned projects for fiscal year 2015, including major equipment purchases in several departments, trail upgrades, construction of a concession stand and restrooms at Penn Meadows park, sewer and water main improvements, another phase of construction on Highway 965, and development of the west side Centennial Park.
The council went into closed session to discuss wage proposals for city staff.
No action was taken on the proposed budget, though Heiar told the council if they had no other questions, it would likely be the last budget work session before he returned with a request for final approval.
Heair said the $57,000 shortfall in revenues still leaves the city’s general fund balance at $2.3 million, a residual of about 24.47 percent of the city’s annual budget.