Taxes remain flat, but city forced to shelve $263,000 in projects to meet levy limit
The property tax rate for the City of Port Washington is expected to remain flat, but the good news for taxpayers belies the fact the city is facing tough financial times that have forced officials to shelve needed projects.
For years, the city has trimmed its budget and said no to requests for capital projects, and it’s getting to the point that this can’t be sustained, Ald. Dave Larson, chairman of the Finance and License Committee said.
It is only funding $158,300 in capital projects, or 38% of the requests, for items that are needed to ensure the quality of life in the city, Larson said. The city didn’t fund $263,000 in capital requests.
Last year, he added, the city was only able to fund 25% of these requests.
“That $263,000 we are saying no to will need to be addressed in the future,” Larson said.
These aren’t wants but needs, he said, and they won’t fall by the wayside. In fact, other necessary requests will be added to the list — a list the city needs to address.
The only way to do that, Larson said, is to grow the city’s tax base.
“Growth is the only answer,” he said. “Our budget is not in good shape. If we do not have growth, we’re going to be in rough shape.
“We can’t continue to fund only 25% to 35% of our capital needs. Eventually, it catches up to you.”
But for 2016, the property tax rate will remain the same as last year, $5.78 per $1,000 assessed valuation, Larson said.
“Your city taxes will remain the same for 2016,” he said. “That’s the good news. The only taxes that are going up are from the school district.”
The tax rate will raise the $4.98 million levy needed to support the proposed 2016 operating budget of $9,034,000.
A public hearing on the budget will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17, at city hall.
To help balance the budget, the city is increasing its building permit fees, which were at the bottom of those charged in surrounding communities, as well as its operator’s licenses, Larson said.
“We can raise permit fees all we want, but we need to grow,” he said. “We need to look at things like Cedar Vineyard, like Harbour Lights and like the Blues Factory.”
Larson noted that the city’s equalized valuation is about $871 million, far less that Cedarburg and Grafton, which each top $1 billion.
The city has been trimming its budget every year, Larson added, “and at some point, there’s nothing left to cut.”
This year’s budget has been one of the most difficult he’s worked on, Larson said, noting state levy limits don’t allow the city to raise taxes.
“We hear a lot about what people want. Unfortunately, our job has been to say no a lot,” he said. “We don’t have a choice.”
The city still needs to trim the budget by about $30,000 to meet the state’s expenditure restraint program limits, City Administrator Mark Grams said.
The city budget includes funding for a new full-time police officer, a position long sought by the police department, Larson said.
“Certainly this is what I think is one of the most essential and core functions of government, providing for the safety of citizens,” he said, noting Port Washington currently has 1.64 officers per 1,000 residents, fewer than most surrounding communities.
With the heroin epidemic, “it just makes sense to have a little more coverage,” Larson said, adding that the new officer probably won’t join the department until somewhere between July and September because of financing.
The city plans to borrow $4 million for roads and $235,000 for a front-end loader for the street department, Grams said. Another $1 million borrowing is expected for water main work done in conjunction with the street projects.
The city may have to add another $275,000 to the borrowing for new air packs for firefighters, Larson said. That is just one of the unfunded capital requests this year, one that city officials are hoping can be funded through a grant that would cover 90% of the cost.
If the city doesn’t receive the grant, borrowing is the only answer, he said.
“That is essential,” he said.
Some people have suggested the city borrow more to cover costs, but that is irresponsible, Larson said.
“The reason we don’t do that is the same reason you don’t max out your credit cards,” he said. “The best thing we can do as a city is to grow our tax base.”