Council hears from residents about budget

Property tax increase among session's topics

$21.9 million proposal

Money eyed for roads, police pension plan


May 07, 2002|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

The Westminster Common Council held a budget hearing last night to listen to the concerns of city residents about how their tax dollars will be spent in the fiscal year beginning July 1.

"It gives citizens a chance to have input, and for us to keep our mouths shut," said Damian L. Halstad, council president.

Though budget hearings often are uneventful, officials were prepared for a larger-than-usual turnout this year because of the first proposed tax increase in the city in five years, announced at the council's meeting April 22. The usual turnout is two or three, and dropped to one last year.

Last night, 10 attended.

"I moved back to Westminster in 1994 and this will be the second tax increase I've experienced in that time," said Joe Mish, a resident of the Parrs Ridge condominium development in Westminster.

"I come from a community of elderly people and these tax increases are bothersome to them. Years ago, many city services were waived from us and yet full taxes are still imposed on us. I don't mind paying the taxes, but I want to make sure we're getting the most bang for the buck," he said.

The city's proposed $21.9 million budget calls for a 4.8-cent increase in the property tax rate, now 35.2 cents. City budget officials say it would increase the tax on a Westminster home assessed at $125,000 from $440 to $500 annually.

Up to $500,000 in additional revenue could be generated if the ordinance passes. The council is expected to vote on it at its meeting Monday.

That money would go toward replenishing a road repair program that Halstad said often gets raided when the budget goes through its balancing act each spring, and for a supplemental police retirement plan, which has drawn criticism from officers.

"The street overlay program will be the beneficiary of the lion's share of additional revenue generated by a tax increase," said Halstad, who estimates a little more than $300,000 will go toward fixing streets. Thomas B. Beyard, director of the city's planning and public works department, said that the priority project is Royer Road, from Route 140 to Uniontown Road.

The proposed supplemental police retirement plan has had officers angry since they first learned of it at the council meeting April 8.

Of the projected $500,000 in additional tax revenue, $125,000 is being held for that plan, which would require the city to deposit the equivalent of 5 percent to 9 percent of an officer's salary - depending on years of service - into an account similar to a market-invested savings plan.

Officers want a plan that would allow them to retire in 25 years, with a pension equal to 50 percent of their highest annual salary.

Last night, the police force received a show of support from former Councilwoman Rebecca A. Orenstein, who stood and displayed a photo of her grandfather, an Atlanta police detective killed in the line of duty. She said her grandmother had no pension benefit on which to raise her three children.

"Stand up for the police and give them the best pension plan," said Orenstein. "Kill your current plan."

Westminster Police Department's 43 officers received personalized projections on the plan April 24. According to surveys filled out by officers two days later, the additional details were not enough to win more support for the proposal.

"The pension issue could be with us for a while," Halstad said. "I do think there's a desire among the council to enhance the pension. If the feedback we get is overwhelmingly unpopular of our approach, then we'll have to go back to the drawing board."

Halstad said that if the money doesn't go into the plan, it will go into the street repair program.

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