By Mary Spicer
“We want a tax decrease,” Meadville City Councilmember Nancy Mangilo-Bittner announced as the latest marathon discussion of the city’s 2013 budget started to wind down. “We’re not there yet.”
In the wake of more than three hours of intense discussion, Councilmember LeRoy Stearns agreed. “You guys have to come up with another mill of tax reductions,” he said, speaking directly to City Manager Joe Chriest, Finance Director Tim Groves and Assistant City Manager Andy Walker. “Where the hell are you guys going to get another $175,000 out of this budget?”
His unanswered question hanging in the air, “That’s your job,” Stearns added.
Minutes later, the session was recessed until Wednesday at 4:30 p.m., when the public is welcome to join council members and city staffers for further discussion in council chambers in Meadville’s new city hall in the heart of Diamond Park.
When the first version of the 2013 budget was presented to council during its Nov. 7 study session, it was $328,000 out of balance, with $9 million in proposed expenditures exceeding the $8.6 million included in the 2012 budget by 4 percent. By late Tuesday evening, revenues equaled expenditures, pending acceptance by the city’s unionized workforce of a change in health insurance coverage that could save the city $150,000 per year.
The rest of the difference was canceled by an extremely advantageous refinancing of city bonds issued in 2002 that will save the city 20 percent on its debt service payments, a reduction of $150,000 in each of the next five years; $40,000 in savings by extending the amortization of the city-owned refuse and recycling carts that are part of the city’s refuse and recycling program for an additional year; and a $10,000 refund from Pennsylvania Department of Transportation after Jim Cooper, the city’s superintendent of public works, discovered inaccuracies in what PennDOT was paying the city for contracted services, including plowing PennDOT roads within city limits.
Chriest said that the union employees had been given until Dec. 1 to decide on whether to accept the insurance change.
College ‘gift’ reduced
Mayor Christopher Soff noted that without the insurance reduction, the budget is $158,000 out of balance because Allegheny College’s annual “gift” to the city in lieu of taxes will drop from the current $65,000 to $35,000. Soff noted after the meeting that the college’s total annual “contribution” to the city will not change, but that the college will reduce its PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes), which goes into the city’s general fund, to offset payment of the city’s newly imposed stormwater management fee. Money collected through the fee must be used only for stormwater management.
The $175,000 figure cited by Stearns represents a combination of two figures. The city would not collect approximately $145,000 that was collected in 2012 if the current 20.92-mill property tax rate was lowered to 19.92 mills. A one-mill reduction would lower the 2012 city property tax bill of $523 paid by the owner of a city residence with the median assessed value of $25,000 by $25 to $498; one mill equals $1 for every $1 in a property’s assessed value.
According to figures presented by Meadville Police Chief Dave Stefanucci, the difference between the starting salary of a new police officer and the additional revenue the city could reasonably expect to collect if its compliment of officers was raised from 21 to 22 would probably total approximately $25,000.
At the end of an extended conversation focusing on the pros and the cons of filling a position that has remained vacant since the 2009 retirement of a patrolman, Soff had a question. “At the end of the day, we’re looking for a relatively firm guestimation of what the net costs would be of hiring another officer,” he told Stefanucci.
“If I gave you a straight figure, I’d be lying to you,” Stefanucci replied.
Chriest agreed, noting that the reduction in overtime paid to other officers wouldn’t be at its highest level during the first year, for example, because the new officer would be spending significant time in training.
In the end, Stefanucci put forward the $25,000 figure included in Stearns’ calculation as a rough estimate.
‘Reduction’ still unknown
As for council’s mandate to put together a plan for reducing tax bills, “I have never said that we would ever reduce taxes in 2013 by implementing the stormwater management program,” Groves told the Tribune. “We’ve used one-time savings and everything we could to balance this budget,” he continued. “Never did I say there would be a reduction.”
Between now and Wednesday, “We’re going to do our best to come up with some scenarios that will achieve the reduction,” Groves said. “And then council will decide what they want to pursue.”
Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.