Courier Staff Writer
The city’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year has been approved, though some councilmen wish the public would voice their concerns more openly at City Council meetings.
“As you know, from the very beginning, I’ve nit-picked this,” said Councilman J.R. Richards at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.
He clarified that even though the city tax levy is decreasing .03579 cents per $1,000 taxable valuation, “it doesn’t mean necessarily that your taxes are going to go down, because the state raised the valuation of your properties.”
The state-imposed residential rollback will increase 2.0648 percent to 52.8166 percent, and taxable valuation will increase 1.25 percent from the previous valuation.
Councilman Jeremy Weller said he was “disheartened” that there has been barely any citizen input on the budget process during his years on council.
“Two of the biggest complaints I hear about day to day is taxes and streets, and yet we had one person [speak to the council],” Weller said. “We went out of our way to have budget work sessions, ask for public input and yet we don’t get any. You complain and you complain and you complain, we give you a chance to have some input and you don’t take the opportunity.”
Mayor Frank Flanders said the biggest complaint he hears from the public is the poor quality of the streets.
“With this budget ... we’re giving them a big increase in what we’re doing with streets,” Flanders said. “We’ve never spent this much money on streets.”
Finance Director Bob Jay said one of the biggest problems with tax increases in Ottumwa is the fact that the population is smaller than what property taxes dictate.
“The larger the base, the lower the taxes have to be because you have more people to draw from,” Jay said.
The city’s aging infrastructure is meant to support a city of 35,000, Flanders said.
“But we have a population 10,000 less than that now,” he said. “Our infrastructure is aging, but we still need to keep it maintained.”
Flanders said every effort has been made in recent years by former mayor Dale Uehling, city department heads and staff to not increase taxes.
“I know not a single member of this council, and I know I don’t want any increase in taxes if we can avoid it,” Flanders said. “Staff and the council has done due diligence in looking out for the public. I hate to increase property taxes; I believe property tax is a regressive tax and others are more justly levied than property taxes because it hurts low-income people the most. But cities need it to survive because of the way a city is financially set up.”
The city’s regular levy will take in $125,000 more next fiscal year than it is in the current fiscal year. But that's balanced over several different levies, Jay said.
“For example, in the general fund, total revenue is $13 million,” Jay said. “Of that, $5 million is from property taxes. What we’re doing is leveraging other revenues in different programs as much as we possibly can to keep the property tax levy down to a reasonable amount.”
The City Council also approved an Employee Assistance Program agreement, which will provide mental health services through the Southern Iowa Mental Health Center for those employees whose mental health problems are affecting their job performance.
The program will be funded through a “fringe benefit portion,” Jay said. City Attorney Joni Keith said she’s only ever had one individual utilize the program, “but it was very helpful, and the employee was very successful.”
Broadband expert Craig Settles also presented a brief overview of the broadband/fiber optic study he’s worked on alongside the Ottumwa Economic Development Corporation. A thorough overview of the initiative and his findings will appear in the Courier's Thursday edition.