Monday, December 11, the City of Rushford held their annual public hearing on proposed tax levy. The figure was set in September at a maximum of $938,000, or an 8.19% increase over 2017. Adjustments were applied in November to debt service needs and the amount was reduced to $913,000, or a 5.3% increase over the 2017 levy of $867,000. Broken down, this net increase represents a 15.4% reduction in operating expenses, but a 20.7% in debt service.
A number of sizeable infrastructure projects in the city have raised the city’s indebtedness, while staying below the self-imposed per capita debt ceiling. Bonded projects, just under $7.4 million in total, have included street and utility improvements related to the post-flood 2009 project, the subsequent 2011, 2014/Highway 43, and 2016 street projects, and levee abatement. Another $3 million in other debt exists through Public Facilities Authority related to water and sewer improvements. In addition, a remaining $497,000 on the Himlie land acquisition and $26,822 for Public Works equipment is outstanding.
There were no public comments during the hearing, but the council had plenty to discuss. City Clerk Kathy Zacher provided the council with detailed information regarding the budget, services provided, and comparative levy data. A recent meeting with the city’s financial consultant, Mike Bubany, of David Drown Associates, was also noted. At that meeting, Bubany suggested the city target a tax levy rate of 85-90% as well as continuation on setting aside money in the Capital Projects Fund.
“I’m not sure if Bubany planned it or if we just happen to be doing thing right,” said Zacher. “It appears we’re on track for the things he said we should be paying attention to.”
Councilor Vern Bunke, in September, proposed the council review the budget for any potential areas of further savings. At the meeting, he again questioned the council on whether or not they’d identified any savings areas. “I’m hoping to hear from the council any areas they feel might be managed differently. Any ideas at all, good better or indifferent?” asked Bunke.
Councilor Terri Benson took a different perspective. “Before we answer that, we have to look at what services we want to provide; if this is the service community we want. I don’t see anything that is excessive. What services are negotiable? I haven’t heard from any citizens, ‘We don’t want this,’ said Benson. “I don’t see anything, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep looking.”
Councilors Jim O’Donnell and Mark Honsey both noted an appreciation for a concerted effort to withhold stepped increases in annual levies. “Infrastructure is better than it was in ’07, but that comes with a cost,” cautioned Honsey, who will end his council term later this month. “Still, we’ve managed to get our fund balances back.”
“I don’t want to spend just to spend. That’s not my focus,” echoed Benson. “We need to be cost effective and have a good return on investments for the community.”
Bunke agreed, suggesting that efforts to slow rate increases have a double-pronged effect, making it valuable and more marketable to both potential and existing businesses.
Bunke also brought forth his repeated concerns regarding overtime hours. Zacher noted that whenever possible, both the police department and public works bank overtime hours, preferring to give employees the time and half equivalent of time off, versus having the city pay out the overtime monetarily. Bunke spoke well of both departments, noting the amount of work done in the past year, but suggested there may still be opportunities for savings.
“I guarantee you, staff does not want to work overtime, they want to be home with their families,” responded City Administrator Tony Chladek. “What you’re talking about amounts to a grand total of $5,000. As a percentage of the total budget, it wouldn’t even equate to 1%. It’s well-managed. I don’t see anything that’s out of line for a municipality.” Chladek also noted that overtime is down for 2017.
The council will vote on the final levy at the next meeting.
In other news, the city will need to pay $182,846 to the state from the sale proceeds from the former liquor store. The building was a new construction following the 2007 flood and was built with more than $800,000 in funds from various sources. The building, which has stood vacant for some time, sold last month for $219,900 to Destiny Life Church. The funds needing to be repaid represent 25% of the state’s investment in the building.
A deficit remains in the Liquor Fund, from four years of operation which resulted in losses before it was closed. It will be zeroed out by the end of 2017.
A recommendation from the Rushford Airport Commission was approved by the council. The action awards a three-year cropping lease of 35.18 acres of city land at the Municipal Airport to Rick Ruberg, who was the highest bidder. The winning bid was for $13,931. Revenue from the leases has brought in as much as $31,662 into city coffers. Councilor Mark Honsey noted the current lease is in line with current agricultural land values.
The next regularly scheduled council meeting is Tuesday, December 26, at 6:30 p.m., at city hall. The public is encouraged to attend.