Westminster council raises fees

Panel OK's 10 percent increase in property tax, 20 percent rise in water, sewer rates

May 09, 2006|By LAURA MCCANDLISH | LAURA MCCANDLISH,SUN REPORTER

Spurning the objections of several irate residents, the Westminster city council voted unanimously last night to adopt a $27.1 million budget that will raise property taxes and water and sewer rates for the first time in several years.

Several dozen people attended a public hearing that preceded the vote, and several demanded an outside audit of the budget before the rate increases were enacted.

To ease the rate increase, the mayor and council approved a 10 percent tax increase, down from the 15 percent originally proposed. That boosts the property tax from 40 cents per $100 of assessed value to 44 cents.

With the average Westminster home assessed at $230,000, the increase will mean an extra $92 a year for the average homeowner, according to Joseph D. Urban, the city's finance director.

During the hearing, residents were especially peeved about rising water and sewer rates, complaining that the council had poorly managed funds and delayed construction of a $5 million water treatment plant. Questions about the professional credentials of the city's engineer also were raised.

"We have wasted all this money and now you tell us we have to pay for a project which has been due for 3 1/2 years and should have since been built," Vitaly Feygin, a structural engineer and Westminster resident, said of the proposed treatment plant on Old Manchester Road.

The council approved a 20 percent increase in water and sewer rates. To implement new environmental and treatment-capacity requirements from the state, increasing water and sewer revenues is necessary, council members said.

"Even if we were able to stop all development today and not add another house to Westminster ... all these projects plus several others will have to move forward because of changing state requirements about how much we have in reserve for our water supply," Councilman Robert P. Wack said.

The rate increases also will pay for a study on restructuring the way billing is calculated - a formula that hasn't been revised since the early 1970s, said Mayor Thomas K. Ferguson.

Residents also criticized the city's growing dependence on loans to finance capital projects.

"We have a banker in charge of this city, and all you talk about is loans, loans, loans," resident Tom Smith said of the mayor.

The audience applauded when one resident proposed impeachment or a recall election, but John B. Walsh Jr., the city's attorney, said that was not permitted under Westminster's charter.

Others demanded seeing monthly financial statements from the city - which Urban said will start being available in August under the city's new financial reporting system.

laura.mccandlish@baltsun.com

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