Gardner City Council did groundbreaking work during a marathon meeting on Aug. 4. With the city budget due to the county in less than a month, council members slogged through a series of proposed projects slashing the 2015 budget by approximately $235,000 and requesting a budget that slashes the 2015 tax rate in accordance with those cuts. That should amount to approximately a 1.75 percent rate drop – or between $10 and $15 for the average Gardner homeowner.
Council member Steve Shute initially requested to see a budget with a 2 mill decrease two weeks ago.
It was a contentious meeting, in which council members and the Mayor occasionally slipped into character assassinations rather than debating facts. However, the council did accidentally slip into a productive conversation.
Going line-by-line through proposed budget expenditures next year, council agreed to drop a series of initiatives. For example, by consensus council agreed to scratch a proposed plan to hire a consultant for $50,000 to determine how to best use a city building located on the southeast corner of Elm and Shawnee Streets. They also scrapped a $50,000 study to examine infrastructure needs at Interstate 35 and 175th Street, a $50,000 study to determine how to update the city’s downtown corridor, and $35,000 for a consultant to help the city develop a strategy for offering incentives to potential new businesses.
After the council made more than $200,000 in budget cuts, city finance director Laura Gourley said she still didn’t have enough information to draft a budget with a reduced mill levy in future years. She said the cuts council made are one-time cuts and she didn’t know where to make cuts in future years.
In other words, drafting a budget with a reduced mill rate is so groundbreaking that city staff doesn’t know where to begin in the process to make it work for future year. That’s a problem.
A lower budget doesn’t necessarily translate into a lower mill rate. Gourley explained that she will send in a proposed budget to the county including expenditures and the rate of reserves the city hopes to maintain, and the county will do the math to determine how many mills the city needs to charge in taxes in order to meet its proposed obligations for the following year.
However, the tax cut does show citizens that the council is serious about returning some of the money it absconded from citizens between 2010 and today. In 2010, council increased taxes by nearly 30 percent.
Gourley explained that those increases were necessary to offset the effects of several Gardner property owners who were in arrears in paying taxes. The owner of one property, near Celebration Park, has an annual tax bill of more than $200,000. The owner of another two properties, located east of Austin’s Bar and Grill, has an annual tax bill of approximately $800,000.
Gourley said it takes the county several years for the county to even start the collection process for properties with taxes in arrears, and it takes even longer before the city actually collects.
The city will receive roughly $130,000 for each mill it taxes next year.
The Aug. 4 meeting was an onerous exercise in budgeting, but ultimately a productive process came out of the meat grinder on Monday night. In future years, we hope council continues to parse through proposed projects when drafting a budget. And we hope council continues to try to step its mill rate back down by nearly 30 percent.
City staff appeared angry at the end of the meeting, but citizens should be gleeful.