WESTMINSTER — The City Council gathered Monday night to hear citizen input on its proposed budget for the coming fiscal year.
The members got what they requested -- and plenty more.
Many of the 40 people who came to City Hall dressed down the council and its budget plan, then trained their displeasure on everythingfrom taxes to water to the new city manager.
"I think it's about time we got involved," Main Street resident William Finch told the council.
The brunt of the criticism during the contentious hearing was aimed at a council proposal to budget $1.3 million for additional office space for city government.
Until recent days, the lone voice of dissent against the project was that of Mayor W. Benjamin Brown.Now the mayor's finding company, including residents and candidates in Monday's council election.
The office-space proposal was attacked on several fronts. For one, the council wants to approve the money-- $1.6 million when combined with previous appropriations -- beforereceiving results of a $35,000 consultant's study aimed at determining how much space city government needs and how much it would cost.
"We paid for the study, let's wait to see what it says," said Dennis Frazier a Johahn Drive resident and a candidate in Monday's councilelection.
Also, Brown has argued for delaying the expenditure andreturning the proposed $550,000 in general fund money to citizens inthe form of a tax cut.
"We've got the opportunity right here, today, to cut the tax rate," the mayor said Monday. "A 20-cent cut in the tax rate is not out of the question."
Several residents said they agreed.
"I was always told that when you have a surplus, taxpayers are paying too much," said Main Street resident Ray Valiante, a former assistant comptroller with the state government. "We should havea tax cut, and I'm talking about now."
The $5.3 million draft budget calls for keeping the property tax rate -- 91 cents per $100 of assessed value -- the same, while raising the sewer rates about 21 percent. That increase would pay for growing costs of operating the wastewater treatment plant, which is undergoing expansion and upgrade.
The council members came to the defense of the budget, saying the city desperately needs more office space and should allocate the moneyto get the project under way promptly.
"It's incredible that we can even function in this building," said Councilman Mark S. Snyder, who, along with Samuel V. Greenholtz, will defend his seat in Monday'selection.
Snyder said that money budgeted would not be spent until the consultant's report was submitted and a public hearing was conducted.
"Budgeting money does not mean expending money," he said. "Not one dime will be expended until all the citizens of Westminster have their full say."
What effect the outcry at the hearing may have on the budget process remains to be seen, said Councilman William F. Haifley, who chairs the council's Finance Committee. The council, which plans to act on the budget at its regular meeting Monday, must pass a spending plan by May 30.
For all the negative comment offered at the hearing, Haifley said he's been receiving more support of the budget.
"(Monday night) was kind of one-sided," Haifley said yesterday. "That's only a drop in the bucket. I'm also hearing from the silent majority, not just the seven vocal opponents (who spoke Monday)."
The ongoing debate over how to pay for the project continued at the hearing, which was interrupted by applause after several residents made comments in opposition to the proposal.
The council wantsto pay for the project up front, using a mix of general revenue money, impact fees, and sewer and water revenues.
Haifley discounted the mayor's call to borrow money for the project, saying said the city's ability to go to the bond market in the future would be hampered by borrowing for the office-space project.
That's a concern, he said, because the city's growing water-supply concerns could lead the city to the bond market in the coming decade for improvements to water infrastructure.
"In the very near future we're going to have to goto the bond market," Haifley said, adding that it will cost the cityat least $8.5 million for water system improvements.
"The city has never bonded on its general fund," he said. "We don't need to now."
Yet Brown wondered why water fund money was going to new city office space if it were to be needed for water infrastructure improvements in coming years.
"Put on the brakes," he said. "Get back to good government. Get back to conservative government."