WIUM Tristates Public Radio

SE Iowa Budgets on Public Display

Mar 2, 2014

City councils and staff throughout Iowa have spent the last few months putting together their budgets for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2014.

A common theme has surfaced in Burlington, Fort Madison, Keokuk and West Burlington : the budgets have been harder to put together compared to previous years.

The reasons differ from city to city.

West Burlington has been spending down reserves to keep property taxes low, but City Administrator Dan Gifford says the reserves are now at critical levels.

"So as we get closer to (the critical level), the harder it gets to make things work," says Gifford.  "Before, we could be a bit farther off or go, 'well we will see where we end up,' and we did not have to get it quite as exact as we do now.  (It has) been a bit tougher, but it has not been horrible."

In Fort Madison, City Manager Byron Smith says a combination of factors affected the budget process.

"The commercial property tax roll-back, that... hampers us a little bit," says Smith.  "Then on the other side, because of the bond issue and the money we got for Highway 61, we are looking at having more projects and spending more money, so it was a little bit more of a challenging budget."

Keokuk is trying to maintain services despite a shrinking population and Burlington must pay off past debts to try to restore its financial outlook.

Despite the issues, the leaders of the four cities have put together the budgets and published them for review.  They range in size from just under $9-million in West Burlington to more than $54-million in Burlington.

The spending plans share some similar traits.

Keokuk, West Burlington and Fort Madison are anticipating stable staffing levels and no cuts in programs or services.

The same cannot be said for Burlington, though, as it will eliminate the equivalent of five full-time positions.

City Manager Jim Ferneau says the library will also lose funding and the fire department is now operating under a change in the minimum staffing level from 10/shift to 9/shift.

The (Burlington City) Council expressed a significant feeling that (the members) did not want us to go over budget there," says Ferneau, "and on top of that, reduce the budgeted amount by $25,000."

Burlington chose to make the cuts instead of drastically increasing its property tax rate.

The city’s proposed increase of $0.13 is by far the smallest of the four, followed by West Burlington at $0.74.

However, West Burlington City Administrator Dan Gifford says that number should change within the next ten days.

"When we published at $0.74, everyone pretty much knew we were not going to end up at $0.74," says Gifford, "but we had to publish a few weeks out."

Keokuk is anticipating an increase in the property tax rate of a $1.15 while Fort Madison’s will jump $1.41.

Fort Madison City Manager Byron Smith says that’s not a surprise because the city is borrowing $6-million for infrastructure improvements.

"So we anticipated our property tax rate going up some," says Smith, "and we are right in the range we had planned, so we are comfortable with that."

He says there would have been no property tax hike if not for the street program.

Streets play a big role in the capital projects for each city. 

West Burlington plans to finish its new public works building and purchase vehicles and equipment for various departments.  Burlington, Keokuk and Fort Madison will be improving their sewer systems and streets.

Burlington City Manager Jim Ferneau says his city’s list is much shorter than normal because the city is working to address some long-term financial problems.

The most important thing to remember is that city budgets are much different than personal budgets.

Families can use an entire paycheck for what they need while cities face certain rules.  For example, cities can use one pool of money to improve streets, but that same cash cannot be used to pay police officers or to pay off debt.

That is just one of the challenges surrounding city budgets along with slumping economies, unfunded mandates, and the increasing cost of employee benefits.

Residents can see how the cities addressed those concerns during public hearings in the next week and a half.

Burlington - Monday, March 3

Fort Madison - Tuesday, March 4

Keokuk - Thursday, March 6

West Burlington - Wednesday, March 12.