Cities and counties in Iowa must have their FY 2017 budgets certified by the state by March 15, even with the Iowa Legislature still in session. It leaves local governments, such as the cities of Keokuk and Fort Madison, to make their best estimates and hope they hold true.
This year marked a change in how Keokuk puts together its spending plan.
No longer did the city council holding 8:00 a.m. meetings on Saturdays to review each line of the budget, deciding whether to purchase a new snow-blower or what street to resurface. Instead, City Administrator Aaron Burnett met with department heads, compiled the numbers, and handed aldermen a copy of the budget for their review a couple weeks ago.
"The first time through the process with the council and mayor, with a city administrator serving here in Keokuk, was a learning experience for both me and the council in trying to figure out what they are looking for in the process and making sure they are getting the information they need," said Burnett. "As we went through it, the council and mayor seemed happy with the budget as it was proposed."
Burnett said the FY 2017 budget simply extends the current spending plan; staffing levels will remain steady, existing services will continue to be provided, and employees will received scheduled raises.
He said the city will purchase a couple police cars, but beyond that there won't be much in the way of capital improvements. He said that's by design, given his short time with the city.
"The intent of the city council and myself over the next year is to go through and look at capital improvements we wish to undertake over the next 5-10 years and make sure we are identifying funding sources to complete them," said Burnett. "A large part of that conversation has been about streets, vehicles, and buildings."
Burnett said if there is a need to repair a street or sewer line, the budget can be amended to address such an emergency. He said it can also be amended to include the sewer separation project in the Rand Park area. He said the numbers are too fluid at this point to include them in the spending plan.
One number that is not fluid is the proposed property tax rate, as Burnett is projecting an increase of roughly $0.31/$1,000 of assessed valuation. He said it could have been higher, but the city will spend down some reserve funds to reduce the hit to taxpayers.
“The pressure on benefits has easily outpaced what inflation has been," said Burnett. "On top of that, our valuation increases are pretty slow, so that does not provide a lot of tax revenue to spread that cost over."
The Keokuk City Council is expected to approve the preliminary budget this week and then set a public hearing on it.
It's standard practice for members of the Fort Madison City Council to receive a copy of the full budget in early February, given the city manager form of government. The FY 2017 spending plan is the second put together by David Varley, who was hired in the fall of 2014.
Varley described it as a maintenance budget, in which he tried to present a proposal that held costs steady from the current budget.
"It's a balanced budget, trying to live within our means," said Varley. "We are being very modest in our requests for capital outlays and equipment replacement. Basically, we are trying to keep our costs modest, services at the same level or trying to enhance them, but at the same time, being real conservative with our expenditures."
The city is projecting a decrease of a roughly $0.10/$1,000 per assessed valuation.
Varley said there is money in the spending plan to resurface 15-20 blocks of streets throughout the city and to replace a two block stretch of Avenue E in front of the public library. He said there is also money for improvements to several parks (Rodeo & Riverview) and for the separation of sewer lines to meet EPA standards.
Varley said the city will move ahead with $14-million in repairs to the wastewater treatment plant during the upcoming fiscal year, but he said it will not spend money on a new passenger platform for the downtown railroad depot until getting the official go-ahead from Amtrak.
"We won't actually construct it until we have a definite agreement with Amtrak," said Varley. "We are not going to spend the money until we are 100% positive Amtrak will be moving and we are still in negotiations with them on some of the language in the lease agreement."
The Fort Madison City Council is expected to approve the preliminary budget this week. A public hearing on it would then be held in early March.