The city’s introduced fiscal year 2015 budget increases property taxes by $560 on an average home valued at $350,000. City officials were quick to say that number will be cut in half prior to the final adoption of the budget.
Tax rate would go up from 2.74-percent to 2.90-percent. “This will not be the final budget,” re-assured Kenneth Morris, councilman at-large. “We’re looking to reduce this budget significantly.”
The increase from a $246 million budget in 2014 to a $252 million budget in 2015 is a result of three items which have pushed up municipal costs: debt service, differed charges, and uncollected taxes, according to business administrator Nellie Pou. The three items make up 98-percent of the budget increase, said Pou.
Officials said the city has to raise $7.5 million through taxation which translates to a 5.2-percent tax hike. However, that’s likely to be reduced by half.
Although the business administrator has repeatedly reassured the council that the budget will remain within the 2-percent cap, that appeared not to be the case. The city has to reduce its introduced budget by 2.6-percent to stay within the cap.
“So we need to look for 2.6-percent in savings?” asked Morris. The council is set to hold departmental hearings in the coming weeks to find savings of $3.7 million in order to stay within the cap.
“We’re going to try to find some meaningful savings,” said William McKoy, 3rd Ward councilman. McKoy pointed out public safety overtime which has increased considerably. The 3rd Ward councilman mentioned a police contract stipulation that allows an officer to work four days and take four days off.
“The four on and four off actually contributes to driving the overtime,” said McKoy.
McKoy asked what is being done to change that practice. Pou said the police contract is being presently negotiated and the city hopes to address this issue. “Certainly, addressing the schedule is paramount,” said Pou.
McKoy also called for an overtime budget to get a handle of overtime costs.
“Is there any way to increase the revenue?” asked Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman, 2nd Ward councilman. “We cannot [keep] balancing the budget by increasing taxes.”
Pou said the city is constantly looking to increase revenue, but did not provide any specifics other than grants the city has received.
Alex Mendez, councilman at-large, piggybacked on Akhtaruzzaman’s question to ask for specifics excluding grant funding. Other than grants how is the city attempting to increase revenue, asked Mendez.
Pou mentioned the mayor’s neighborhood stabilization program which seeks to return over a thousand property back to the city’s tax rolls.
Andre Sayegh, 6th Ward councilman, called for a presentation in the future. Sayegh also asked whether the vacant positions for which the city often budgets money without actually filling the posts were addressed in this budget. “There was a concerted effort to make sure that was done in this year’s budget,” said Pou.
During Tuesday’s public hearing on the budget half of the council chamber was filled with residents; however, when offered the opportunity to speak on the budget not a single member of the public budged.
“We will bring this within the cap,” said Morris. The councilman said the city has yet to get a figure from the state how much it will receive in financial assistance – last year the city received $23 million.
“If we were to receive $23 million it cuts the money we need to look for by half,” said Morris. “I promise you, as we go through the budget hearings, we will look to reduce this budget.”
Pou said the administration is not proposing the adoption of this budget with the aforementioned tax hikes.