One of the most restricted City of Verona budget situations in years contains some good news for taxpayers, at least – a tax cut.
Hamstrung by a requirement to add nearly full-time positions’ worth of staff in the library and previous decisions to add positions midyear, the 2020 budget proposal contains two staff cuts, the city’s first reductions going back perhaps as far the 1980s.
That proposal, approved for publication by the Finance committee, goes to a public hearing Nov. 18 would cut taxes for most Verona property owners by 2.2 percent.
That cut offsets last year’s erroneous tax increase, which came when the city assessor mistakenly doubled up more than $5 million in a tax-increment financing district and then compounded the mistake by shifting the decimal place one to the right. The city is still pursuing legislative remedies to refund that money.
In the meantime, on a home with an assessed value of $272,000, this year’s taxes would drop $35, which follows last year’s $40 increase. City taxes are about 30 percent of the total tax bill.
The biggest reason for the squeeze is the city’s paltry 1.6% growth, using a figure called net new construction, or what’s built minus what’s destroyed. That’s the number that creates basis for each year’s budget.
Even during the height of the Great Recession, Verona’s growth was among the highest in the county, but that wasn’t the case in 2018, an oddity of a year when several expected large projects got postponed.
The budget stress is also a result of a drive, led by Mayor Luke Diaz on advice from the city’s financial advisers, to reduce debt.
And the city is a victim of its own economic development success. With its total value having quintupled since Epic began building here 15 years ago, what once would have been considered a handsome addition of $45 million in tax base simply isn’t enough to keep up.
In addition, prior obligations are taxing next year’s budget, with two mid-year hirings – an additional ambulance crew and a police officer – and the continuation of an agreement with the county to increase its spending on the library by more than $100,000 this year. The 2020 election cycle – with four local elections – adds to the non discretionary costs, as well.
Fortunately, most of that is offset by an increase in debt service of only $160,000, far less than the $450,000 in the 2019 budget and $630,000 in 2018.
The Finance committee had a variety of options available over the past month, none of them popular with alders, for keeping spending down.
With a gap of more than $1 million between department requests and the state-mandated maximum tax levy of $13.9 million, the committee had to cut deeper than usual and decided to recommend eliminating the position of economic development manager Dayna Sarver, a 15-year Verona resident who was hired just over a year ago.
That move, which city administrator Adam Sayre initially recommended and the Personnel committee unanimously approved for inclusion in the budget, would save $109,000.
In addition, the budget eliminates a vacant deputy chief position, which Sayre said made sense because with the retirement of fire chief Joe Giver after 10 years, the new chief might want a different staff structure. It also doesn’t fund Giver’s request for an additional part-time driver/operator.
It does, however, fund one full-time reference librarian and several new and expanded part-time positions for the Verona Public Library, totaling $132,000.
Throughout all the squeezing, another increase in library staffing is a result of circulation jumps over the past few years that increased the minimum the city must fund make to avoid the county library tax. Those additions will, among other things, allow the library to stay open on Sundays throughout the year, rather than just the school year.
The budget coming out of the committee includes a 25% cost-of-living wage adjustment and a $125,000 program to ensure school crossings are fully staffed.
Other proposals include police department body cameras at $95,000, a replacement command car for the fire department at $65,000, setting up a revolving fund to prevent Fitch-Rona EMS costs from having peaks and valleys, at $100,000 and three alder initiatives: a fire department consolidation study for $40,000, sustainability initiatives for $30,000 and diversity assessment and training for $30,000.
The final decision rests with the full Common Council, though it’s rare for that body to change the final tax rate or levy, and historically, other amendments to the budget at that point have been small swaps, $10,000 here or $20,000 there.
Alders are set to discuss the budget Nov. 11 in a Committee of the Whole meeting and offer any proposed budget amendments later that week. Once the budget is approved, city staff will begin compiling numbers to include on final tax bills that include other jurisdictions – the school district, county and technical college district – that the county mails in mid-December.