Mayor vetoes 2019 Merrill city budget
Merrill Mayor Derek Woellner announced via social media Monday morning that he will veto the 2019 budget adopted by the Common Council last Tuesday. That budget carries a 4.71% tax levy increase.
“I believe that a 3% increase is attainable and more palatable for those with frugal tastes,” Woellner stated in a Facebook post Monday morning. “I was hoping to build consensus behind the 3% goal and to bring the council back to pass a budget unanimously, but it doesn’t appear that that will pan out.
“My new hope is that at least one of the six who passed the current budget will see the 3% goal as an opportunity,” Woellner added. “I have a few more ideas on how we can lessen the impact of the increase.”
Woellner could not be reached Monday morning for further comment.
Last Tuesday night, after nearly two hours of number wrangling, the Merrill Common Council adopted a 2019 city budget. The budget approved by the council includes a 1.79% increase in operations expenses and a 2.92% hike in debt service, for a total increase of 4.71%.
The tax levy of $5,907,612 would put the city’s mill rate at $14.49 per $1,000 of assessed property value, compared to last year’s rate of $13.70. On a $75,000 property, the tax increase for city purposes would be $59. The city’s portion of the tax on that $75,000 property has climbed $152 since 2010, though tax levy increases were less than 1% for five of those eight years.
In another Facebook post Monday morning, Woellner indicated that those years of not raising taxes may have led to the current hikes.
“For those that think we can get by without ever increasing taxes, that just doesn’t make sense,” Woellner stated. “And frankly, I believe there were many years in the past where it should have been raised more than it was in order to properly address the debt. For example, I’m told of this problem where, for years, we were just making interest payments on the debt from the library addition, never paying off the principal. I have to ask myself why it wasn’t being taken care of, and I think part of the reason may have been that we wanted to prevent tax increases.”
“Nobody ever wants an increase, but the reality is that costs go up and the city needs to pay our bills,” Woellner went on. “Maybe some years we can get by without an increase, but a 0% increase is never going to be a sustainable goal.”
Woellner added that he would like to see increases around 2% in future city budgets.
“Seeing the reality of the situation, I’m led to believe that there is a percentage somewhere that would be considered to be a reasonable, yearly increase,” he stated. “We know it can’t be 0, and we know that it needs to be kept low, and we should find that number so that we can make each tax bill more predictable.
“I haven’t heard anyone propose what that percentage should be, but after hearing from so many, I believe 2% to be a reasonable goal.
“This year, 2% is not a reality,” Woellner added. “I don’t see a way to get us there, but i believe 3% could be. Going forward, I want to see the next three budgets meet the 2% goal.”
Prior to deliberating on the budget last Tuesday, the council heard from several city property owners during the public hearing. Most of those who spoke were opposed to the tax increase.
Merle Sheridan said he’s already seen large tax increases the past couple of years and asked that the council reconsider this budget.
“I urge the council to do some creative and more proactive thinking on this,” he said.
Eric Ott, who also spoke during the public hearing, said the council should take this budget “back to the drawing table.”
“Year after year, we’re expected to adjust our already tight (household) budgets due to the city’s lack of discipline,” Ott said. “At what point are we overtaxed?”
Initiated by Alderman Steve Hass, the Council spent considerable time Tuesday night picking away at various items in the proposed budget, ultimately eliminating over $422,000 in future borrowing but only $12,000 off the 2018 tax levy.
The only levy-funded item cut Tuesday night was a rubber floor for the Smith Center. The council reduced that expenditure from $17,000 to $5,000.
Borrowing removed from the budget included $300,000 for construction of hanger at the airport; $27,000 for a UTV rescue vehicle for the fire department; and a loader tractor at $95,000 for the street department.
Hass also proposed freezing the salaries of the city administrator and department heads for one year. After some discussion, that motion died after Alderman Paul Russell withdrew his second. A motion by Hass to eliminate the administrative assistant position at the fire department and move that employee to the Enrichment Center was voted down by the council.
City Administrator Dave Johnson said the increase in operations is only what is needed to maintain current city services. Further cutting the budget would result in reducing services, Johnson added.
“One of the questions that has to be asked and answered is what services do the citizens of Merrill not want to fund next year, or the year after, or 20 years into the future,” Johnson said. “You cannot keep the same level of services that we have without an increase in our budget.”
At last Tuesday’s council meeting, Woellner noted that the increase of the city operations expenses is about equal to the cost of living increase.
“The other three percent we’re looking at is paying down debt from years past,” he said. “I don’t want to keep kicking that can down the road.”
Following Woellner’s veto, the Common Council will have two options ahead of them, according to City Administrator Johnson. Once a meeting has been called, council members will have the choice to either override the mayor’s veto (requiring a 6-2 vote) or amend and approve a new budget (requiring a majority vote of 5-3).