Chatfield officials ponder proposed levy rate increase

Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

Chatfield’s councilors and city administrators, in a Chatfield Committee of the Whole meeting on Monday, Oct. 28, spent the better part of two hours wrangling with how to reduce the city’s 8.47 percent preliminary property levy increase while still meeting residents’ needs and expectations of their city’s infrastructure and amenities.

Mike Bubany, a financial consultant with David Drown & Associates, presented information on the city’s budget prospects as well as its water and sewer rates. 

He spoke of impending difficulties if the council plans certain projects while the costs outpace revenues. He offered that the council could “be more optimistic if you wish to be” while also making adjustments to certain projects or expectations regarding what will be accomplished or maintained.  He pointed out that increases in the city’s water fund could bolster operating costs. 

“Your water fund, at $20 a month per 5,000 gallons, is a little low or just on the mark.  If you add 15 percent next year and then 3 percent in the years after, it still does well,” he said. “But a year ago, I suggested that you delay some (water infrastructure) projects and accelerate others.  Your (other) infrastructure fund is not as well, but you can always re-categorize some of those funds.” 

Bubany looked at a line item for the city’s reserve funds and questioned whether Chatfield is putting enough away for certain unexpected expenses. 

City clerk Joel Young remarked that conversation about specific purchases had been broken down into “even more specific” perusal of what’s necessary and what’s not. 

Bubany stated, while looking down a list of project proposals, that street projects the city has been considering for 2023 will not affect that year’s finances but those of the following year — essentially, the decisions being made now will have far-reaching effects, be they to proceed with upgrading a street in 2021 or any other year after that. 

Lengthy discussion centered on whether the city should proceed with its annual $115,000 contribution to the capital reserve fund or trim that amount down by $40,000 to ease budgeting concerns for 2020, or if the budget itself should be shaved to not include as much for maintenance, improvements or services. 

“So the consensus is to drive the tax rate below 100 percent?” Bubany asked the committee’s members. “The city of Rushford set ‘X’ per capita, and if it comes in over that, they just don’t do a project, but that leaves them less flexibility.” 

Councilor Paul Novotny said after some debate on how or whether to include various projects, “The way I look at it, we look at what our priorities are and start saving toward it instead of borrowing for it.” 

“One idea to take the strain off the tax levy is to drop the reserve to $75,000 from $115,000, and that would drop the increase down from 8.47 percent and doesn’t affect any services,” Young ventured. “It brings the tax levy increase from 8.47 percent to about 6.5 percent.” 

Mayor Russ Smith questioned, “Are we comfortable with 6.5 percent?” 

Novotny registered, “In all fairness, some of it is pool debt, the lights on Main Street.  It’s not new spending, but it’s not on the priority list – we had $250,000 for lights on Highway 52….”  

Further into the session, Novotny referred to a letter to the editor that was published in the Chatfield News following the release of the 8.47 percent preliminary property increase.  The letter’s writers called for a much smaller increase as they referred to the property tax increases proposed by neighboring towns as being more feasible.  He reiterated the hypothetical reduction of services he’d posed at previous council and committee meetings. 

“The only way, in my mind, to get to that is to reduce anything non-essential,” he said. “When I had conversations with people, I asked them, ‘What do you value?  The library?  Potter?’  Because I may not go to the library. If 20 percent of you like ‘this’ and another 20 percent of you like ‘that,’ (we’re not going to get anywhere).” 

Young acknowledged that the most pressing matter is devising a budget that meets the needs of the community. 

“It’s not smart long-term, but to meet the needs of the community, it works short-term,” he said. “You asked, ‘What are those non-essential things that make Chatfield ‘Chatfield’?  We have a comprehensive plan – that explains why we have parks, and that was done with research, thought and planning.” 

Smith surmised, “It sounds like they’d be a lot happier at 6.5.”

The meeting came to a close after talk arose once more about the city’s ambulance service not receiving full reimbursement for services rendered for Medicare recipients, as making the ambulance fund whole has been of concern to councilors throughout the budgeting process. 

The 2020 final budget and property tax levy will be approved in December. The annual Truth in Taxation hearing is set for Monday, Dec. 9, at 7 p.m. The council can’t increase the levy from the preliminary amount, but it can reduce it.