Lebanon Budget Sees Higher Taxes

Lebanon — City residents could face higher property taxes as well as an increase in water and sewer utility fees despite an overall cut in spending if the City Council approves the proposed 2013 budget recently submitted by the city manager’s office.

The budget proposal reduces the amount of money to be spent on capital improvement projects — such as an overhaul of the city sewer system mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency, numerous road projects, and the municipal airport — by more than $3.5 million, while raising tax revenues by 3.6 percent and raising water fees by 5 percent and sewer fees by 9 percent.

Total spending would decrease 5.3 percent to $46.6 million, while total revenue — from both taxes and city fees — would decrease 4.4 percent to $46.3 million. But the decrease in the proposed budget’s spending would not offset the need to raise utility rates to deal with rising costs.

City Manager Greg Lewis said the budget represents yet another year of belt-tightening and conservative fiscal housekeeping with the backdrop of an unstable national economy.

“While the city has remained physically and financially sound, we are still acting in what I call very much a survival mode,” Lewis said. “2012 was a survival year, 2013 likewise is a survival year.”

Lewis added that city councilors face making tough choices in order to keep the budget balanced, which he said could result in possible layoffs in one or more of such city departments as Human Services and Public Works, as well as small cuts in funding to the

city’s libraries and city clerk.

He said he could not provide any specifics as to how many jobs could be eliminated or specifically which departments might be affected because the City Council has final say over those decisions. The budget meeting cycle of the City Council, where any actions would be approved, is set to end December 19.

“The Council has to kind of glean and decide where that balance of fairness and need kind of lies,” Lewis said in an interview yesterday.

But City Councilor Karen Liot Hill said that while she would welcome the opportunity to influence those decisions, the Council has only the authority to adopt or reject an overall budget.

“The City Council does not have line item authority to say, ‘Cut here or there,’ ” Liot Hill said. “That is entirely within the city manager’s discretion.” That was only one piece of conflicting information to emerge from the city manager’s office yesterday.

When asked about the higher water and sewer rates, Finance Director Len Jarvi referred the question to Lewis. Later, when Lewis was asked the same question, he said Jarvi was the only person who could provide an answer, aside from the rate assessors who drafted the water and sewer rates.

Liot Hill also expressed frustration over the fact that the first public hearing on the city budget is scheduled to take place tonight, on Election Day, when many people will be at the polls.

“One of the most important things that we do is encourage people’s participation in their government,” Liot Hill Said. “Scheduling an extremely important budget meeting on the same day as a national election, I think that it is unfortunate to put people in a situation where participating in one is going to limit their participation in the other.”

She added that many of her constituents have also complained about the scheduling of today’s public hearing, and that another public hearing for an important City Council vote on union contracts is scheduled for the day before Thanksgiving, when people are already beginning their holiday.

“I’m frustrated personally,” Liot Hill said. “But I’m very frustrated for the staff and consultants who are going to have to be at these meetings, but mostly I am frustrated for the public.”

Lewis said that today’s budget presentation was only the first of four, all of which will be on local cable access, in addition already being available online on the city website.

“It took us until just this very last week to get it out of the printers, and that’s traditionally what’s happened because we’ve worked so hard at it and it takes so long,” Lewis said.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com.