Westminster rally protests tax rate rise, higher fees

April 27, 2006|By LAURA MCCANDLISH | LAURA MCCANDLISH,SUN REPORTER

About two dozen Westminster residents rallied outside City Hall last night to protest a 15 percent increase in property tax rates and 20 percent increase in water and sewer fees, which the City Council introduced last night as part of its proposed $27.3 million budget for the next fiscal year.

Protesters complained that they are being unfairly asked to bear the burden of recent annexations, rising government staff salaries and expensive consultant fees. Amid the rising costs, crime has increased on streets such as Pennsylvania Avenue and Main Street, said rally organizer Rebekah Orenstein, who served on the council from 1991 to 1995.

"I've watched this council borrow, borrow, borrow," said Orenstein, as the group moved inside to attend the meeting. "Now, they dump on us what they were unable to fix in the past."

The council's five members appear to support both measures.

One would raise the property tax rate from 40 cents per $100 of assessed value to 46 cents. The city's last increase was a 4.8-cent rise four years ago.

The other measure would raise water and sewer rates for the first time since May 2000. A household would be charged $22.32 per quarter for up to 6,000 gallons, compared with the current $18.60. For sewer services, the rate would rise from $21.20 per quarter to $25.44, based on 6,000 gallons of water consumption.

Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson spoke at the rally, defending the increases and explaining that the city's expenses have increased $3.4 million over the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Implementing the property tax and water-and-sewer increases would just about make up that 34 percent increase in expenses, he said.

Salaries make up the bulk of the increases in the $27.3 million proposed budget, which devotes 43 percent to employee costs, Ferguson said. About $8.2 million of the budget would go to salaries and another $3.6 million to benefits and other payroll expenses. About $550,000 has been set aside to raise salaries on par with other municipalities and industries.

"City employees are our single largest expense and most valuable asset," Councilman Robert P. Wack. "I don't think citizens of Westminster would want us to run our city in a way that treats employees unfairly."

Ferguson said at the meeting that capital costs have been cut to try to scale back the budget, from $8.5 million in construction projects that were first considered to $4.6 million proposed now.

To finance those capital projects - which include road overlays, a new water pipeline for drought emergencies and a new water treatment plant - debt service payments on the $4.7 million borrowed in fiscal 2005 are up 62.5 percent, Ferguson said.

In other action, the council approved the creation of a full-time city administrator position, with a $100,000 salary for fiscal 2007.

The council plans a hearing on the budget at 7 p.m. Monday at the new Westminster fire station on John Street. A hearing on the water and sewer rates will take place at the May 8 council meeting, when members are also expected to vote on the budget.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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