By Michael Howell
Residents of the City of Hamilton are going to see a 42% increase in their property taxes in the coming Fiscal Year 2015 to cover general government services as the current budget calls for levying close to the maximum number of mills allowed by law. The City’s finance officer, the City Planner and a few Council members are quick to point out that the increase adds up to about the same amount of money that was saved by not assessing the maximum amount of mills allowed in three out of four of the preceding years. It was also noted that it is the City property tax that is going up 42%, but a person’s property tax bill also includes payments to schools, Ravalli County, special improvement districts and other taxing entities.
According to Finance Officer Craig Shepherd, this year’s budget is comparable to last year’s. He said the budgeted revenues only increased by $166,000 or about 2% and the budgeted expenditures also increased by $115,000 or about 2%. The difference is the funding sources,” he said.
Total expenditures including water and sewer funds for the coming year are forecast to be $10,453,000. About $3,141,000 (30%) goes to personnel expenses; $3,554,000 (34%) goes to operational costs and $3,758,000 (36%) goes to capital expenditures.
Total revenues including the water and sewer funds are budgeted to be $8,912,000. The difference come from various sources; only 24% of the total budgeted revenues comes from city property taxes. Another 26% comes from federal, state and local governments; 29% from various user fees and services; 13% from in house operational transfers; and 8% from other small sources. The difference between the $10.5 million in expenses and the $8.9 million in revenues will be made up by using cash on hand. As a result the amount of reserves will be reduced but still remains within recommended amounts, that is two months of operational expenses or about $550,000.
Mayor Jerry Steele made a recommendation that was accepted to remove $706,000 from the preliminary budget. That recommendation removed a water project, part of a road project, a few vehicles, and a park project from the budget. It also reduced the amount budgeted for a new Justice Center by $55,000.
The commitment to building a new Justice Center has drawn some last minute resistance from a couple of councilors, although the Council did approve the purchase of a piece of property for $228,000 for the proposed new Justice Center. The property is located on the north side of town next to the Bitterroot Furniture Warehouse. The money for the land purchase was taken from a fund already established for the Justice Center project. Councilor Jenny West suggested that City Hall be made into a justice center and the mayor and staff be moved somewhere else. Councilor Joe Petrusaitis also objected to the idea of the new Justice Center and it played a role in his vote on the budget as he cast the lone dissenting vote on the budget.
The City budget calls for assessing 187.84 mills in property taxes. A mill is valued at $11,361 and about $2.134 million is expected to be raised in property tax revenue. Another 20 mills is being assessed to fund a voter approved Street Maintenance Levy that will raise about $227,000. This will be a decrease as a result of the decreased state valuation of property.
Councilor Ken Bell expressed disappointment that the public did not show up at the many meetings held since May but showed up on the day of final approval to criticize the proposed budget. He said that many people were suddenly calling and e-mailing about the budget but concluded, “It’s a little late to start doing that on the afternoon before the budget comes up for final approval.”
In other business the Council:
• approved the closing documents, including the warranty deed, baseline report and pedestrian easement for the Bitter Root Land Trust donation of the Steve Powell Park (formerly the Taber property);
• approved a Weed Control Agreement between Ravalli County Weed Board and the City of Hamilton;
• approved a 20 mill Street Maintenance Levy;
• approved an assessment related to the work plan and budget submitted by the Downtown Hamilton Business Improvement District for Fiscal Year 2015;
• appointed Councilor Kristie Bielske to the Zoning Commission;
• approved a resolution levying a special assessment for Lighting Districts #10, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16 for budget year 2015.