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Friday, June 19, 2020

City of Fort Thomas Passes Budget, Continues Community Plan Implementation

City passes FY 2020-21 budget, drawing on reserves to fund ongoing community plan projects.

by Robin Gee, city council beat editor

It’s fiscal year budget time again, and the Fort Thomas city council held a public budget hearing just prior to its July council meeting. At the meeting itself, members passed the budget for Fiscal Year ’20-’21.

"It is an understatement to say that this budget, put together during a global pandemic, has been a little bit more complicated than any compiled by the city in the last decade. But as the beginning of the crisis found the city on sound financial footing, we’ve been able to continue all the projects tied to the implementation of our updated community plan," said Fort Thomas Mayor Eric Haas.

Haas said the budget is conservative, and there is less money available for discretionary spending. The General Fund expenditures overall total $13,557,505, a modest .4 percent increase over last year. The city cut about $250,000 from departmental budget expenditures. Coupled with a one-year freeze on pension contribution increases that saves the city another $225,000, this helped the city balance its budget during this difficult time, he explained.

The budget assumes an increase of 6.1 percent in operating expenditures and accounts for a contracted base pay increase of 3 percent for city employees.

Elizabeth Allegrini, of Lockwood Place, attended the budget hearing and asked if the city had looked at personnel expenditures. "Did we contemplate eliminating any positions going forward, to give us wiggle room in the budget? I don't want to see anyone lose their job, but we all have to tighten our belts, perhaps to add more cushion in the budget."

City Manager Ron Dill replied that personnel had been discussed, and the city has eliminated positions in the past, but there were no plans to eliminate any positions. The city has been operating with a tight staff, he said.

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Tough times dictate caution but city financially secure 

Nearly half, 42 percent, of city revenues come from city payroll and business taxes. With the impact of COVID-19, the city took a conservative approach toward revenue for Fiscal Year ’20-’21, projecting no increases of payroll or business taxes or licensing fees.

In fact, property taxes are the only major revenue source projected to increase. A four percent projected increase, the most allowed by state law, will result in an $5,556,828 for the budget. The budget also taps into reserve funds to the tune of $750,000 to support community plan projects and necessary capital purchases.

City council members approved the budget with one no vote over concerns about the property tax rate. Council member Mark Collier said he felt the city should not ask for the maximum allowable on property taxes and should instead tap into its healthy reserve funds.

He applauded the city for cutting $250,000 from the budget but said, "I just think proposing a budget that raises taxes the additional maximum of four percent during this recession when many people may be hurting financially...I just feel these are exactly the times reserves are made for."

He noted that the city of Fort Thomas maintains a $7.1 million unrestricted surplus in reserves representing 47 percent of the budget. Traditionally, a reserve of 25 to 30 percent is considered sufficient.

Highlights of the budget

Highlights of the coming year's budget include:
  • Continuation of projects underway or planned for in Tower Park, Highland Park and the Central Business District
  • Additional capital improvements including resurfacing of those streets in need of repair and continuation of the North Fort Thomas sidewalk project. Six hundred thousand dollars has been set aside for road and sidewalk construction.
  • Funds have also been set aside for scheduled vehicle and equipment replacements, which this year include a new ambulance and a backhoe.
The city continues its commitment to implementing the updated community plan, creating a new budget item called the Community Plan Implementation Fund (renaming the former Central Business District fund). Most projects proposed for this year are a continuation of commitments from the previous year. They include:
  • Parking lots for the One Highland area business district
  • Completion of the Shelter Three project at Tower Park
  • Improvements to the Tower Park softball field
  • Possible improvements at Highland and Rossfield parks (although these projects have not been specifically determined for this year).
"In summary, despite the current economic climate, we are proud to craft a budget that continues the city’s longstanding tradition of providing great public service to all its residents while striving to improve the parks and other amenities our citizens enjoy... We felt it was important to maintain the momentum of our community plan implementation and made that a focus. Hopefully, we want to get to the other side of the situation, we’ll be able to enjoy these projects together far into the future," said Haas.

Stop searching, start finding.

One Highland project gets back on track

City council also passed items related to the One Highland development project, which were previously passed.

The city manager introduced three items that would bring the financial and timeline aspects of the project back into line as developers start up construction again and move ahead on financing issues.

"As we know, the project was suspended after they did the earth work. The developer indicated, at that time, when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, they were not going to initiate construction of the building. This related to their bond issue and it related to their timing and construction," Dill said.

The developers have approached the city to say they are comfortable enough now to move forward. This requires addendums and a resolution to bring everything up to speed.

City council members discussed three items:

  • An addendum to the One Highland Development Agreement that adjusts agreements over timing aspects of the project.
  • An addendum to the Pilot Agreement for One Highland Project, which is the mechanism to collect "money in lieu of taxes" for the city, county and school system. The change here would be to have the city collect from property owners directly rather than having them pay a trustee who would in turn pay the city. The move makes these payments mirror the normal property tax collection system.
  • A resolution for bond issuance for the One Highland Project, which would make some legal and technical adjustments to adapt to a change in the type of bonds issued from taxable to tax-exempt bonds.
The development agreement passed with four yes, one abstain (Collier) and one no (Blau). The pilot payments and bond issuance passed with five yes and one abstain (Blau).

Council approved the addenda and voted to pass the resolution clearing the way for the bonds to be issued.

In other city business, council reappointed City Attorney Jann Seidenfaden.

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