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Lebanon City Hall Overhaul Nixed; City Council Approves Budget

Lebanon — The City Council voted Wednesday night to approve a $51.2 million municipal budget for 2014, but only after shaving money from the general fund and deferring a $2.7 million City Hall renovation.

At the 11th hour, the council voted 7-2 to trim $101,000 from the city’s general fund in order to keep the projected property tax rate increase below 3 percent.

Mayor Georgia Tuttle and City Councilor Carol Dustin voted in opposition.

The 3 percent cut will be applied at the discretion of City Manager Greg Lewis, who was not able to provide a detailed explanation Wednesday night of how the cut would affect city operations next year, though he said that his office would make adjustments in accordance with the City Council’s wishes.

“We can adjust and make adjustments,” Lewis said. “We’re a group of people that sacrifice. We follow the direction of Council.”

With the cut, the municipal property tax rate will rise 2.9 percent to $9.71 per $1,000 of assessed value. That translates into a tax bill of about $2,425 on a property valued at $250,00.

The Council also voted 6-3 in favor of deferring the first phase of a two-phase $2.7 million City Hall renovation proposal, removing $880,000 from the capital budget. Tuttle, Dustin, and City Councilor Nicole Cormen voted in support of keeping the renovation in the budget.

Those opposed to funding the renovation said they supported the concept and were in agreement with the administration’s long-term vision for the city, but they maintained that residents cannot afford the renovation in a year that saw other rising costs, including a recently approved 9 percent increase in sewer rates.

“I think that 365 days will be OK to wait to make this commitment,” said City Councilor Suzanne Prentiss. “I really want to see where things shake out. Moving forward, next year, I’m happy to support this. I’m just being very conservative at this time.”

The renovation would have addressed concerns over workspace organization, accessibility for the disabled, and climate control systems, among other issues.

While councilors who opposed the renovation cited unexpected costs from the early July cloudburst storms that caused anywhere from $6 million to $10 million in damage citywide, Tuttle cited that the flooding as the reason why she supported the renovation. She said it exemplified why the Planning Department would need better facilities going forward.

“I feel like the rain was key for me to start to look at how we are doing things here,” she said.

Cormen said that the cost of the renovation was only a fraction of the capital budget, and that the benefit to the city’s Planning Department could outweigh the expense.

“Part of what we’re trying to do to improve our government is investment in our employees as well,” she said.

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill said that the administration did not do an adequate job selling the renovation to the public, either through data or an outreach campaign to city residents.

“If we believe that the renovations of City Hall are in the best interest of our residents, then we should make a strong case for the coming year,” Liot Hill said.

Several city residents also spoke in opposition to the renovation, including the city’s historian, Carl Porter, who said he has three children and that his family cannot afford the increasing tax burden in Lebanon.

“Any more increases in the tax rate continues to eat into our budget, and we have a very young family,” he said. “We make due with what we have … I don’t know how much more we can take of taxes continuing to rise.”

Al Patterson, a former School Board member who now sits on the Zoning Board of Adjustment, said that “people are strapped” for cash in the city, and that he had to pay $4,000 to repair his driveway after the storm.

“There are people that can’t afford to do that,” he said. “We all suffered from the storm.”

Patterson also referenced a recent petition he spearheaded that called to reduce the proposed $40 million Lebanon school budget by $1.2 million.

“I understand that there are things that we’d like to do, but let’s try to stick to things we need to do, because that’s what the community can afford right now,” he said.