Council likely to approve budget

Property, water, sewer taxes to rise in Westminster

May 07, 2006|By LAURA MCCANDLISH | LAURA MCCANDLISH,SUN REPORTER

Westminster to adopt budget The Westminster City Council is expected to adopt tomorrow night its fiscal year 2007 budget that calls for increases in property taxes and water and sewer rates.

The budget proposal called for a 15 percent property tax increase and a 20 percent rise in water and sewer rates, stirring opposition among residents.

But officials said last week the mayor and council members are reconsidering the property tax increase.

To ease the burden, the mayor and council are looking at a 10 percent property tax increase, said Joseph D. Urban, the city's finance director. The increase would boost the property tax from 40 cents per $100 of assessed value to 44 cents.

The council originally proposed a tax rate of 46 cents per $100 of assessed value.

"Any tax increase is going to be difficult for people," Urban said. "But this would certainly be easier than the initial 15 percent."

Water and sewer rates are expected to go to public hearing tomorrow and may be approved that evening. Urban said the increases -- the first since May 2000 -- should remain at 20 percent. He said the water and sewer rates have increased an average of 7 percent a year.

The council could cut expenditures by slashing a $450,000 sidewalk project along the Wakefield Valley community trail, Urban said, because matching funds from the state never materialized.

Proposed staff salary increases and personnel changes have also come up for debate.

In late February, the same night that Thomas B. Beyard, the city's veteran director of planning and public works, announced that he was being deployed for 18 months with the Maryland Army National Guard, the City Council also proposed hiring a full-time city administrator.

Originally, the council planned to hire an interim replacement for Beyard, who departs for the Middle East in mid-June.

Now, only a city manager will be hired but won't start until about Aug. 1, Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson said.

Beyard's position will remain vacant until he returns from duty.

"It's going to be a challenge," Ferguson said. "You take a guy like Tom Beyard, with 18 years of institutional knowledge. It's not going to be the same."

Some residents protested that proposed salary increases for city employees were too generous and related consultant fees unnecessary.

In the fiscal 2007 budget, about $550,000 has been earmarked for salary increases, as recommended by a pay equity study.

But about half of those dollars will go to fund increases under an existing salary step schedule, Ferguson said.

Council President Roy L. Chiavacci said consultant fees for the study -- $78,000 to The Singer Group in Reisterstown -- were justified since Westminster has gone 30 years without rigorously analyzing the competitiveness of staff salaries.

With soaring fuel and electricity costs, city officials said they realize the proposed tax increases come at a difficult time for residents. But Beyard said the city is in a similar pinch.

"We're paying the same price for that as other people do," he said. "It's troubling. But we're trying not to get in the situation where we have to cut service."

Even scaling the proposed property tax increase to 10 percent wouldn't satisfy some residents.

Rebekah Orenstein, a former city councilwoman who has protested the council's actions, said increases should slowly be phased in each year.

"None of it makes me happy," Orenstein said. "But I guess I would settle for a 3 to 4 percent increase. Let's talk reality here. People are sincere when they say, `I live on a certain amount of money, and this is crushing me.'"

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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