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Tentative millage rate unchanged

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By Carolyn Ten Broeck, Editor

Williston City Council members left no wiggle room Tuesday when they set the 2012-2013 tentative millage rate at 5.9025 mills–the same as in years past.
By law, a governing body can reduce a millage rate once a tentative one is approved but it can never increase it once a tentative number is adopted to offset a budget that is not yet prepared.
The council, with members Charles Goodman and Elihu Ross phoning in from their vacations, first heard a motion from Goodman to set the millage at 8.1849 mills, but Councilor Jason Cason said he opposed the motion and would not support an increase in taxes for the city’s residents.
The motion failed 2-2, with Cason and Councilor Norm Fugate dissenting.
Cason said he believed that after the city’s budget workshop last Thursday, it all came down to trimming about $40,000 out of the budget in order for the millage to stay the same–and keep taxes low while ensuring a balanced budget.
Goodman, on the phone from somewhere in Illinois, said he thought by adopting a lower millage the city was tying its hands and was left without options. That is why he suggested the higher number until the final budget is prepared and then lowering it later.
Fugate said even at  the 5.9025 millage rate, Williston is still one of the highest taxed municipalities in the county, and he supports reducing it further.
Mayor Gerald Hethcoat asked the council to be considerate of the city’s residents and said the city may find itself in a situation where employees would have to be cut. He said in times of crisis, it is the city’s employees who hold it all together and keep things functioning.
“Look out for them,” Hethcoat said, “before we say ‘chop, chop, chop.’”
Cason said he asked for different options to be presented on trimming the $2.7 million budget during last week’s workshop.
“I think we can find $40,000 to cut without hacking away at employees,” he said.
Fugate said council needs to look at the services it provides and look at the bigger picture. He said he would like to see a reduction in taxes and a reduction in consumer utility rates.
The motion passed 4-0.  Now that the tentative millage rate has passed, the property appraiser is notified and uses it to advise property owners of proposed taxes in the coming year.
The council will hold another budget workshop Aug. 23 and will hold a public hearing Sept. 11.
Budget Workshop
During last week’s budget workshop, council members learned that the city’s taxable property values decreased about 8.2 percent from last year, which means about 7.6 percent less monies going into the general fund–about $48,000.
Interim City Manager Oel Wingo told the council that they were looking at a balanced budget but “it is not fiscally sound or responsible.”
Wingo presented each member with a memo of recommendations on how to achieve better fiscal responsibility and outlined a few of those points in the meeting.
They included: developing a capital improvement program, achieving greater efficiencies with staff and outsourcing some services.
“Tell us what services you want,” Wingo  said to the counci, “and we’ll go through it [budget] line by line to make it happen.”
The first item cut from the new budget was employee bonuses–something former City Manager Pat Miller doled out at Christmas last year. Full-time employees received $1,000 and part-time employees received $500.
All agreed the word “bonus” is a misnomer. City workers haven’t had raises in years and the extra money was in lieu of raises. The bonus elimination will save the city about $67,000.
There was much discussion about the police department and how much money should be devoted to it.
The police department budget is about $1 million, with payroll eating up about half of that and another $240,000 earmarked for retirment and health and life insurance. The $1 million covers 15 employees.
The police chief also oversees the communications budget–another $203,000 plus animal control–about $47,000.
Fugate said he wanted to make it clear he is not anti-police department but asked if the city’s residents could afford 24/7 police protection. Fugate said he thought the city should rely more on the county sheriff, since taxpayers fund that department as well.
Debra Jones said the city needed two officers on duty for safety reasons.  She said the sheriff was understaffed as is and the city couldn’t rely on   deputies when they could be as many as 50 miles away when called.
“We back the sheriff more than they back us,” Jones said.
Police Chief Dennis Strow said eliminating one police officer would save abut $50,000 with salary and benefits, but before he did that,  he would take a 50 percent pay cut. The chief earns $40,000 annually.
No action was taken–no firm suggestions were made. Council members directed Wingo and Stephen Bloom to  come back at the Aug. 23 budget workshop with a set of options to show savings.
Wingo was also directed to present an option for a reduced utility rate, which would mean less monies channeled into the general fund.