$28.6 million Westminster budget unveiled

Mayor seeks trash fee, `prudent borrowing'

April 21, 2004|By Hanah Cho | Hanah Cho,SUN STAFF

Westminster's proposed $28.6 million budget for fiscal year 2005 includes what the mayor calls "prudent borrowing" to balance the budget and an annual fee for residential trash collection to create additional revenue.

In unveiling his spending plan, Mayor Kevin Dayhoff recommended that the city borrow $1.5 million to pay for mostly one-time expenses - including updating the police and finance departments' computer systems - and collect $65 a year from residential households for trash pickup.

"I think we have a good budget," Dayhoff said. "We turned a lemon into lemonade."

At a two-hour meeting Monday night, several council members expressed concerns over the proposed trash collection fee, which would generate $300,000 annually, and questioned whether taking a loan out for the budget year that begins July 1 would lead to continued borrowing.

Councilman Roy L. Chiavacci said he was uncomfortable with setting a precedent of imposing user fees for city services covered by property taxes.

"It could be said that if I don't call the police, I don't have to pay [for it]," Chiavacci said. "I'm concerned about where user fees start and when they end."

Council President Damian L. Halstad equated the proposed fee to another form of taxation. "I'm calling it a trash tax," he said.

Dayhoff said the proposed fee is a "fair and equitable way to go about it."

Calling an increase in the property tax rate a last resort, Dayhoff and City Finance Director Joseph D. Urban said they worked to maintain the city's core services while making sure critical needs, such as public safety, would be met.

Revenues have been stagnant while demands for services have increased, Dayhoff said.

Income tax revenue has been virtually flat for the past three years and the city has lost $650,000 in highway user fees from the state in the past several years, Dayhoff said. At the same time, expenses for public safety have climbed by $700,000 and for trash collection by $97,000, he said.

By taking advantage of low-interest rates, the city would borrow $1.5 million to pay for computer system upgrades and capital improvement projects, including $750,000 to repave the city's worst streets, Dayhoff said.

Other projects that would be funded through the loan include installation of streetlights on Pennsylvania Avenue, adding parking on West Main Street and completing construction of the Wakefield Valley Community Trail.

Loan payments would amount to about $200,000 a year.

To balance this fiscal year's $25.8 million budget, city officials dipped into the city's rainy-day fund and delayed numerous public works projects.

Councilman Thomas K. Ferguson, chairman of the city's finance committee, reminded officials that the city has diverted money from the street paving program in the past two years. City streets, Ferguson said, can't handle another harsh winter.

The city's Public Works Department inspected Westminster's streets and rated them on a scale of one to five, said Thomas B. Beyard, public works and planning director. More than a dozen streets received the worst rating, Beyard said.

"It's like treading water," he said of the roads. "Your legs get tired. We're playing catch-up on the roads."

Other expenses for next year include: $5.3 million for a new water-treatment plant, which would be paid for through a state loan program, and radon removal in city wells as part of a state mandate.

The proposed budget also calls for a 1 percent cost-of-living increase for all employees, a 1 percent matching contribution for a deferred compensation program for city employees not in law enforcement, and a total of three new positions for the police and human resources departments.

Ferguson told the council that if it decides against the loan, reduces the amount, or forgoes the proposed user fee, the city would be forced to make cuts or find another source of revenue.

Urban offered a grim outlook.

"I don't know how many times I've recalculated the revenues," he said. "It can't get tighter than this."

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