By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
The Havre City Council approved a $12.2 million budget on Monday night, and it also fixed the tax levy for this year.
The property tax rate increased from 160.76 mills to 178.74 mills. The tax on a property worth $50,000 would be about $304, an increase of about $23.
A total of 8.28 mills of the 18.02-mill increase will pay for the city's share of a 45 percent increase in health insurance premiums for city workers. The city will pick up half of the increase and the employees will pick up the rest.
Last year's total budget was just over $11 million. This year's general fund budget of $2.65 million is slightly up from $2.58 million last year.
The council voted 6-1 in favor of the budget and the mill levy. Council member Dana West was absent.
Council member Emily Mayer was the dissenting vote both times. After the meeting she said she objected to a tax increase to pay for the $136,000 increase in health insurance premiums.
"We're balancing the budget by raising property taxes on the working poor and fixed-income senior citizens, and I don't agree with it," Mayer said. She said the property tax increase affects everybody, but that those groups will be hit hardest.
Mayer said she is not against city workers.
"However," she said, "I represent people who either can't afford health insurance for themselves or their families, or they make too much money to qualify for government health care assistance and do not have the income to purchase it on their own."
Mayer said she made her decision to vote against the budget after 15 to 20 of her constituents talked to her about it.
City Council president Rick Pierson disagreed.
"I felt it was necessary," he said. "Nobody wants to levy taxes against any taxpayers in the community, but in this circumstance it was necessary."
Pierson said he was not completely satisfied with the budget. He said the city could have saved money by cutting perks like cell phones and car allowances for city workers.
He added that in the future, the city will have to find better ways to conserve money to avoid the one-time fixes it used to balance the budget this year and last year.
This year the council took about $195,000 out of the general fund reserve to make up for a budget shortfall. That was about 8 percent of the reserve fund.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said after the meeting that he is pleased with the way the city departments and the council worked with him to get the budget done.
"At least the council was working as a unit on the budget and they allowed the department heads to make some decisions, and it was a good team effort," Rice said.
The general fund includes budgets for each of the city departments.
According to a breakdown of the general fund budget from city clerk Lowell Swenson, the largest single department is the Police Department, which saw its budget rise 3 percent to about $1.03 million. That includes a 3 percent wage increase that will cost the city about $25,000. The wage increases will also mean a $3,600 increase in the department's budget for retirement.
The Fire Department saw its budget increase by 2 percent to $306,835. The city has budgeted for a 3 percent increase for wages that will cost the city about $7,000, and another $1,000 for retirement. The city is still negotiating this year's contract with the union that represents the firefighters.
The Public Works Department saw its budget increase by 2 percent to $88,550. That includes a 3 percent raise that will cost the city about $2,200. Public works employees are still in negotiations with the city over this year's contract.
The budget includes pay raises of between 1 and 3 percent for the Parks and Recreation Department, the city clerk's office, the mayor's office, emergency dispatchers, animal control employees, swimming pool employees, road and street services personnel, and the city court.
Here are some other spending increases in the general fund:
The city budgeted a $7,000 increase in natural gas costs for the City Hall complex, anticipating projected gas rate increases.
The city budgeted 28 percent more for legal services than last year, which includes a $13,500 increase for special legal services, cases in which a conflict of interest prevents the city attorney from handling a case. The increase was needed because the city no longer has an agreement with the county attorney's office to cover cases the city attorney can't take, so it had to be budgeted, Swenson said.
The budget also included some cuts.
The budget has $15,000 less than last year for personnel services. That money was used to hire an attorney to cover city personnel issues. Last year there were few expenses, Swenson said, so the budget was scaled back this year.
The city cut the Parks and Recreation Department by about $6,000 from last year's budget. The budget has $8,000 less than it did last year for machinery and equipment. Parks and recreation director Dave Wilson said today the Finance Committee turned down his department's capital outlay requests for a pickup truck, a mower, and gravel to be placed around playground equipment.
Also on Monday night, the city appointed deputy Blaine County attorney Tamara Barkus as the new city prosecutor. The city began looking for a new prosecutor in August after Bosch Kuhr Dugdale Martin and Kaze, the law firm that was serving as Havre's city prosecutor, was hired to provide public defender service for Hill County. Both of Barkus' jobs are part time.