Council to consider budget cuts, no tax increase

Tomorrow's session offers look at $21.3 million plan


April 20, 2003|By Athima Chansanchai | Athima Chansanchai,SUN STAFF

Westminster residents won't face a tax increase if the Westminster Common Council agrees with an initial recommendation of cuts in next fiscal year's $21.3 million municipal budget, which they can view tomorrow night at a public work session.

"We scoured through the nooks and crannies," said Councilman Thomas K. Ferguson, who led the finance committee in its quest for a balanced budget for the fiscal year, which starts July 1. "We turned over rocks. Everything that could be done was done to prevent raising taxes."

The document comes with $2 million slashed from capital projects such as playground wall repairs, purchasing city work vehicles and City Hall renovations. But a $700,000 gap between projected revenue and expenses remained after department heads submitted their recommendations.

"Most of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked," Ferguson said. "The department heads couldn't go any deeper."

To plug the holes, the finance committee made several suggestions, which the council will see tomorrow night.

Instead of looking for more cuts, Ferguson asked city staff members to comb through their files to find money due to the city or in city coffers through previous grants and financial arrangements. It is appropriated surplus - money that is left when the city is able to get something for less than was budgeted. He said the staff found more than $200,000.

The committee came up with another $200,000 in the special capital benefits assessments fee, a one-time charge that new developers pay when building in Westminster. That money will go specifically toward repaying a $2.1 million debt on the Longwell parking garage, estimated to start at $280,000 a year.

The committee also found about $50,000 in salary cuts and $100,000 in the "rainy day" unappropriated surplus reserves.

The committee closed the rest of the shortfall through minor trimming and the deferment of some projects, said Ferguson, although he also hopes the city will benefit from income tax revenue and rebates from the state.

Westminster is also bearing the cost of new projects this year.

In July, all but the highest-ranking police officers will switch to the Law Enforcement Officers Pension System after a long-running push from the department for a plan that would give officers more of an incentive to stay in Westminster. The plan allows participants to retire after 25 years and with annual pay of 50 percent of their salary. It is estimated to cost more than $500,000 a year. About $125,000 set aside for a previous alternative plan is being diverted to pay for the pension system.

To acknowledge city employees who are not eligible for the plan, the city wants to start 401(a) savings plans - the government version of a 401(k) - in the next fiscal year.

A new trash contract is costing the city nearly $600,000 this year, but the amount will be reduced over five years.

The proposed budget began with fiscal disappointment, with the city losing $300,000 in highway-user funds generated by the state. The city also quickly depleted its snow-removal budget - spending twice the allotted $400,000.

In a meeting with department heads, Ferguson and City Councilwoman Suzanne Albert set priorities for the city. Foremost in their minds was money to repair city roads that took a beating during the winter. The $350,000 allotted for such repairs stayed in the budget.

Also remaining in the budget are funds for more lighting on Pennsylvania Avenue, completion of a three-mile trail and construction of the Union Street Community Center.

The public is invited to observe but not comment on the budget tomorrow. Residents may voice concerns at a public hearing scheduled May 5, one week after the budget is formally introduced at the council meeting April 28. Adoption of the budget is scheduled May 12, the same day as municipal elections for three council seats.

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