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Thursday, July 9, 2020

Wilder Hammers Out Budget, Keeps Current Tax Rate

Wilder Mayor Robert Arnold led a deep open discussion on the FY '20-'21 budget.

by Robin Gee

After deep discussion, Wilder Mayor Robert Arnold and city council members hammered out a proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2020-2021 over three meetings last month.

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Although the plan was to have a first reading on June 1 and a second and final reading on June 15, there were so many changes and ongoing conversation, that council decided a third meeting on June 23 was needed to approve the budget. The budget was approved at that quick meeting.

Budget challenges

The mayor acknowledged the challenges of creating a budget in these difficult times. While they received a state grant for city projects this year, the costs of dealing with the pandemic have taken their toll. In addition, a local steel mill was purchased and then promptly closed taking with it potential revenue from payroll taxes and other income.

"Given the situation with the steel mill and given the situation with pandemic, it gives us uncertainty with regard to where our revenues are. It took a bit to figure out where we were in this latest quarter, what revenues were coming in, to help us project for future," said Arnold.

"My goal, once I became mayor, was to try to make this a much more open discussion about budget." Dealing with all the uncertainty has made the entire process more difficult, he said.

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A change for next year and the years ahead

For the first time, the budget committee added a new column to the budget called the "Capital Outlay Fund." This would provide a designated budget line for surplus revenue that could be assigned to capital projects. In the past, the mayor explained, it was added to the General Fund and often used to balance the budget in addition to capital outlays.

By providing a separate place for revenues carried over, the mayor explained it will be easier to plan future projects. For Fiscal Year ‘20-’21, because of so many uncertainties in the budget, the surplus was split, carrying over $250,000 in the General Fund and any additional will go into the Capital Outlay Fund column.

"This year we just don’t know what revenues are going to be. I think we’ve made some pretty conservative projections...but we have got to get into a pattern of balancing the budget without using the carry over," he said.

Wilder City Council met in person but at tables allowing them to be socially distant.

Proposed budget reconsidered and adjusted

In the initial budget proposal on June 1, the mayor and budget committee proposed raising the property tax rate to the state compensating rate. Since the rate is set in August of each year, the mayor said the proposal was to raise it to last year’s rate of .238 set in August 2019. Currently, the rate is .218 in the city.

City Clerk and Treasurer Juanita Schultz, noted that the rate for the city has remained at or near .218 for close to 20 years. She urged council members to look at the proposed rate as what the state determines is needed to run a city and not just a raise in taxes. For a home valued at $100,000, she said, that would be an increase of about $20.

"Every time we don’t take the compensating rate, we are leaving that money on the table. We cannot make up for that," she said.

Council members said they understood the need to raise funds, especially under such uncertainty, but had concerns about increasing the tax rate during the pandemic.

Council member Jim Profitt said, "I have been in favor of the compensating rate in the past, but my position is, it's as hard on our businesses and residents right now as it is on our city. That’s why I’m having a hard time deciding which way to go...It's been so tough on them as well."

After much discussion, they agreed to push off the "first reading" of the budget to have more time for discussion and consideration. They agreed to meet two more times during the month to have an official first and second reading.

Also, at the June 1 meeting, council approved giving the mayor authorization to request reimbursement funds through the federal CARES Act program.

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Changes to the budget clears the way for passage

Discussion was ongoing through the June 15 meeting where the budget committee presented a new proposal that would not raise property taxes and keep the rate of .218.

The application for the federal grant to provide some relief funding during the pandemic was in process, and officials were optimistic that the additional revenue would come through and help balance the budget.

In fact, upon learning the Wilder Police Department had two very good candidates for one open position on the force, the department’s budget allowance was reworked, removing some overtime and part-time funding to allow for the possibility of hiring both candidates.

The first reading of the reworked budget was passed at the June 15 meeting, and passed on second reading at a special additional meeting held June 23.

Other city business underway

City Administrator Terry Vance noted that work on the new firehouse, after some delay to resolve some issues with a retaining wall, is continuing to progress. Some bids have come in for the former north and south fire stations but nothing had been finalized.

He was not as positive about ongoing issues over mud slides on Route 9. He reported very little progress and that barricades have been placed at Aspen and further up the street, and noted very slow progress on cleaning up debris and the mud slide itself. He has heard from businesses in the area who are concerned that, despite a relaxation of COVID rules allowing for some opening up, the mud slide mess in the area has added more headaches.

Vance said city officials have reached out to the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet to offer assistance but have not heard back. The hope is that more progress can be made as the new fiscal year begins.

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