Council begin budget talks, Veterans Park in discussion

property taxes
Tax revenue down in the city.

by A.C. Hall

The long process of preparing the 2015 – 2016 budget is underway as council held the first of several meetings to discuss the budget on Tuesday evening.  The first thing pointed out in the proposed budget was a $345,000 decrease in expected sales tax revenue.  Several reasons were given for the sub par sales tax numbers, with the major reason said to be the city’s largest tax payer Weir SPM laying off some of its workforce.  Lower gas prices, the lack of Chesapeake revenue and new Chesapeake drilling permit fees, as well as the ongoing construction on Cherry Lane were also mentioned as reasons for lower revenues.  
City Manager Jim Ryan acknowledged that the upcoming budget will be lean, but spoke confidently about the direction the city is headed.  He informed council that he doesn’t believe the current numbers indicate a downward trend.
“We feel it’s a mere valley,” Ryan said.
Overall, the proposed budget is set to come in at a deficit.
“Right now were looking at a $600,000 to $700,000 deficit,” Ryan said.
Several different factors were discussed that could still see the city have a balanced budget despite the expected deficit.  Ryan mentioned that over the past five years the city has added over $4 million to their reserves, saying some of that money could be used to cover the deficit.  While final property tax numbers weren’t available, Finance Director Phil Bray predicted a very slight increase of one to two cents, which would also help increase revenue.  The final way to cover the deficit is from reducing expenditures in the new budget, something Ryan addressed.
“We’ve cut this to the bone,” Ryan said of the budget.
One expenditure that continues to increase every year is health insurance for city employees.  Ryan said the current insurer is seeking a rate increase of over fifty percent.  Currently, the budget contains a twenty percent increase in health insurance costs.  Ryan stated that they hope this will be enough to cover the increased costs as they go out and try to find a new insurer.
As he continued to speak about the lean nature of the budget, Ryan said a lot has been asked of the current employees.
“I think our employees have really stepped up to the plate,” Ryan said.
One thing not contained in the budget are large capital purchases.  Ryan informed the council that these have all been pulled out as they can fund them through the bonds the city has taken on in recent years.
With two more meetings scheduled this week for budget talks, council decided to move on with the rest of their agenda at this point.  The Grizzly Detail will continue budget discussion coverage in next week’s newspaper.

The possibility of moving the softball complex out of Veterans Park and turning that portion of land into commercial real estate was once again discussed.  Parks and Recreation Director Rich Tharp gave a presentation, going back over all the information that’s been discussed on this matter so far.  Ryan also spoke on this issue as he continued to stress that this is still in the discussion phase while also spotlighting the benefits the project could have.
“There’s a lot of good that can be done for this community if we go this direction,” Ryan said.
Council member Danny Anderson addressed the project, saying it could bring in some much needed sales tax and draw additional businesses to White Settlement.  Anderson highlighted the upcoming budget deficit as a reason this project is worth looking into.  He also stated that most people in the city want growth and new businesses.
“The only way to do that is to make some changes.  We can’t stay the same,” Anderson said.
A public hearing was held to allow citizens to speak about this project.  The first citizen stated that they are against the idea.  They said that Veterans Park is the best place in the city for people to walk and the current drawings being shown appear to cut the walking trails by half.  They also said that the creek area of the park is a great part of nature and somewhere families are drawn to and that they don’t want to see that removed.  In closing, they expressed concern over the cost of moving the softball complex as well as the impact it would have if it was moved to Saddle Hills Park, which has been the leading candidate for the new home of the complex.
Ryan addressed some of these concerns, saying that the creek should remain untouched.  He also said that they’re looking at options that would leave the full walking path intact and they are also looking at adding some additional walking paths to Central Park.
The next citizen who spoke lives on Saddle near Saddle Hills Park. They spoke about how nice it is to have an open stretch of nature behind their home.  The walking paths at Veteran’s Park were also mentioned as the citizen said it’s a place their family feels safe exercising.  They closed by saying that relocating the softball complex to Saddle Hills Park would have a negative impact on that neighborhood.
In responding to these comments, Ryan stated that city staff had raised some similar concerns regarding moving the complex to Saddle Hills.
The final citizen stated that if this project moves forward, they don’t believe a grocery store would work well at the Veterans Park location due to the close vicinity of Albertson’s and Wal-Mart.  This citizen stated that if the project does happen they hope the city finds something good to put there.
Ryan spoke about this later in the meeting, saying that since the city would be the owner of the land they could be picky about who they sold to.  He said this is a way they could find the proper business to bring to that location.
While most on the council agreed there was still discussion needed, a motion to direct staff to prepare paperwork to place this on the November ballot passed unanimously.  This doesn’t mean the item will appear on the ballot, but does instruct staff to prepare the paperwork in case council decides to move forward and have it ready for the upcoming election.  With a deadline of Aug. 11 looming, council has less than two weeks to make a final decision as to whether or not this will go before citizens for approval in November.