Council trims budget after public outcry

The Minot City Council lightened the proposed city tax burden on residents by 7 percent with revisions to the 2014 preliminary budget Monday.

The owner of a $200,000 home would pay about $49 less than originally proposed in the $190 million preliminary budget. The preliminary budget called for a $784 tax on a $200,000 home, up about $28 from the 2013 budget.

The $190 million budget was up 7 percent from 2013 and did not include another $4.1 million in an alternate budget for equipment and 37 additional employees.

Total spending under the revised preliminary budget remained to be calculated, but the council achieved its main goal to reduce taxes. The revisions came following an hour and 20 minutes of input from often angry taxpayers who insisted that taxes already are too high.

Residents filled the council chambers and spilled out into the hall to share their dissatisfaction with tax levels.

State Rep. Scott Louser, R-Minot, said as a Realtor, this is the first year that he has encountered homebuyers who reference property taxes as the primary reason for not making a purchase. He said the Legislature will be discussing massive property-tax reform and not just more property-tax relief measures if political subdivisions continue to consume all the relief.

“From my experience during committee hearings, conference committees, floor debates, caucus meetings and general discussion with leadership and colleagues, morning, noon and night, never was it the intent to provide property-tax subsidies to the local property’s political subdivision. It was always an intent to provide relief to the taxpayer,” he said.

Several residents spoke about huge increases in their property valuations and the financial struggles that seniors and flood victims are facing. Some mentioned that their personal budgets are stretched so thin that a tax increase would force them from their homes.

“I don’t have anything else to pull from. We are tapped out,” one taxpayer said.

“The increase in our property taxes has been astounding and it has hurt my family,” said another resident, who added her pay as a school teacher isn’t keeping up. “The property tax increase on my home has washed out any benefit I would have gained from that pay increase.”

Upset taxpayers spoke of concern that taxes are driving young people from the community. They suggested rather than taxing residents in general, the city levy more taxes or fees on people benefiting from oil income to compensate for the impact they are causing. They also suggested the city phase more of its infrastructure projects to ease the tax burden. Some residents were critical of city actions such as asphalting around lift stations and tearing up the same portion of 16th Street twice this summer, suggesting a need for smarter spending and better planning. The crowd, however, supported keeping raises for the city’s emergency personnel.

About 30 people spoke during the public hearing.

Afterward, council president Jim Hatlelid recommended changes that would leave the 2014 budget about 10 mills lower than the amount budgeted for 2013.

The council adopted Hatlelid’s recommendation to add the equivalent of 10 full-time employees. The positions include an administrative clerk, a property appraiser and additional personnel in finance, water and sewer and landfill departments.

The council approved Hatlelid recommendation to eliminate improvements to the Sertoma parking lot and budgeting for an addition to the public works building and water and sewer maintenance building over two years. The savings would go to the street improvements budget.

The council added 2.74 mills to cover the amortization of the pension plan as the city closes the plan to new employees, who will have the alternative of a defined contribution plan.

The council reduced budgeted amounts for cemetery road improvements completed early and downtown street lighting to be covered by a federal grant.

Hatlelid also suggested saving money by dividing the employee pay raises to give half the raise in January and the other half in July. The average annual pay raise is about 6 percent. However, that suggestion met with opposition from council members concerned about high employee turnover.

“Part of our job is to maintain the staff we have to provide the services, especially the safety-related services,” council member Dave Lehner said.

Council member Amy Moen said city staff need to be more accountable with budget requests.

“Yes, salaries are going to get hit because we haven’t been presented with something that’s fair to us to really review,” she said, noting that constituents are asking for better internal budgeting. “We have got to do what these people are asking us. We are representing our constituents, not the city staff. They made it very clear that they are done with this. And I am done with this.”

The council voted 7-5 to implement the full pay raises on Jan. 1. Voting for the motion were Lehner, Bob Miller, Lisa Olson, Tom Seymour, George Withus, Kevin Connole and Larry Frey. Opposed were Moen, Dean Frantsvog, Mark Jantzer, Scott Knudsvig and Hatlelid. Council members Blake Krabseth and Milt Miller were absent.

The council voted 12-0 to approve the budget on first reading.