The tax rate could be dropping in Stoughton for the third year in a row.
The mayor’s proposed budget has yet to be vetted by the Finance committee, but the city has published the proposal in this week’s Hub, meeting the state requirement to print it more than 15 days before its Nov. 13 public hearing.
Mayor Tim Swadley’s proposed 2019 budget includes a portion of the $300,000 compensation plan he has said is a priority – a 3 percent across-the-board wage hike for city staff – but it does not cover the other half of the cost of the plan, the proposed “rightsizing” of staff salaries.
It also does not cover several staffing requests from various departments. Those include a clerk and officer in the police department and several firefighters – to bring the department to 24/7 service at a time the fire chief said it’s become more and more difficult to find volunteers.
But the city is limited by “micromanaging” from the state, as Ald. Denise Duranczyk (Dist. 1) put it. Since 2011, the state has barred municipalities (with some exceptions) from increasing tax revenues by a higher percentage than its growth from new construction. That was under 2 percent this year.
“We have been painted into a corner so tight, so there is no way for us to hire people we need and to do things we basically need to do this operation,” Duranczyk said at the city’s first committee-of-the-whole meeting on Oct. 18.
The 2019 budget includes a proposed $524,675 jump in the levy, which, accounting for the average increase in home values, would result in an decrease in the city’s share of property taxes of $7 per $100,000 of assessed value.
Notable expenditures proposed include a $140,000 increase in debt service, $240,000 in increased contributions to preventive maintenance funds for sidewalks and roads, and $2.6 million in borrowing to build Glacier Moraine Drive, a portion of which the city is contractually obligated to complete by 2020.
Helping the city’s budget is the state transportation aids, based on road work in previous years. That increased by $160,500, and increased transfers from the local water and electric utility payment in lieu of taxes add another $95,000.
Levy limits left Stoughton with about $113,000 to increase its operational costs, which finance director Jamin Friedl said “isn’t going to cut it.” He recommended going to referendum to fund the rightsizing package that would bring the city’s employees in line with median wages in their industry.
The Common Council has one more meeting as a committee-of-the-whole to discuss the budget, on Nov. 1. At that meeting, it will be expected to give a recommendation to itself, as the council, to advance the document to the public hearing.
Alders have the option of amending the budget as they see fit but those amendments have been rare in the past, Swadley pointed out after a recent meeting. This is Swadley’s first budget as mayor, and Friedl is the third person to prepare a budget for the city in the last three years, and the process this year is different.
This time around, leadership asked department heads to present any requests for additional staffing in a move toward transparency, Swadley said. In the past, such requests had been discouraged in public conversations due to budget constraints, Ald. Regina Hirsch (D-3) said after this month’s committee-of-the-whole meeting.
The mayor’s budget follows the human resource department’s recommendation that the city increase current employees’ wages before adding more staff.
It also would double the hours of a new community service officer, who has been doling out parking tickets downtown. That position just about pays for itself with added revenues from the citations, police chief Greg Leck said.
The budget also includes $15,000 for the community-wide survey Swadley said was a priority while campaigning and $9,200 for a program volunteer coordinator at the senior center.
In previous years, Swadley said, administrations had gone after the “low-hanging fruit” to keep services going, like eliminating preventive maintenance funds. He included $60,000 for the sidewalk fund in his budget and $180,000 for preventive road maintenance, both accomplished with recurring borrowing.
Duranczyk agreed with the mayor’s assessment, commenting during the committee-of-the-whole meeting that preventive costs like patching roads can be worth four times the output in what the city saves in staving off the cost of fully replacing the piece of infrastructure.
There’s also around $100,000 for the hydraulic and hydrologic studies the Department of Natural Resources requested for the whitewater park project.
What’s left out
In addition to skipping the “rightsizing” component of the compensation plan, the mayor’s budget doesn’t fund many other departments’ asks.
The city has been without an economic development director since last April when Tammy LaBorde stepped down from a role that was combined with the finance director, and under the proposal, it would continue to do so throughout 2019. The personnel committee has prepared a job description the mayor said he will try to fulfill by delegation. Swadley pushed for adding a dedicated economic development director during his campaign.
Fire chief Scott Wegner has put in a request for enough staff for 24/7 service, asking for 12 full-time firefighters, though he’s acknowledged that’s not going to happen. The chief has said the department has been struggling to find adequate numbers of volunteers and is operating with seven fewer firefighters than he’d like, at 35 rather than 42.
The department has three nearly full-time positions at the fire station, Wegner said. His request, at an estimated cost of $816,500, is not funded in the mayor’s budget.
The police department requested an increase in its overtime budget of nearly $40,000 even after adding a full-time officer last year in a split vote. Leck explained it usually takes about nine months for a new hire to complete training to the point that it impacts scheduling costs, and the department lacks the staff to adequately backfill current positions.
The planning department asked for $53,000 for a code enforcement specialist, which was also not included in Swadley’s proposal.