Metro-East News

Collinsville adding employees, could raise utility tax in 2016

Collinsville Streets Department work

Collinsville Streets Department work
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Collinsville Streets Department work

Collinsville residents face a potential tax increase next year to fund things like sidewalk work, an upgrade to police department radios and a new vehicle for the city manager, among other items and projects.

As part of the city’s 2016 budget passed Monday night, the city’s utility tax rate is expected to be raised from the current 1.25 percent to 4 percent — a 220 percent increase. The $40.9 million budget approved by the City Council is based, in part, on this increased revenue. But the council is split on whether to raise the tax, making the increase uncertain.

Collinsville Mayor John Miller downplayed the effect of the proposed tax increase, saying it translates to less than $5 per month for the average residential user, according to numbers provided by the city’s finance department.

The utility tax funds capital projects, which will cost an estimated $12.4 million during the next two years, with almost $2.9 million coming from grants. Finance Director Tamara Ammann came up with the 4 percent rate based on the cost of the projects that department heads and staff decided were needed over the next two years.

Among the projects are:

▪  $1 million for resurfacing and construction work on Clay Street in 2016.

▪  $500,000 for digitized radios for police in 2017.

▪  $315,000 for two ambulances.

▪  $200,000 for sidewalks.

▪  $30,800 for turnout gear, protective equipment for firefighters.

▪  $25,000 for a vehicle for the city manager in 2016.

The City Council has not yet voted to set the utility tax rate, but a majority expressed support for an increase.

The 4 percent rate would be an increase of $4.67 per month for the average residential user, and $19.01 per month for the average commercial user, Ammann said. The council has said rebates would be made available to seniors, disabled and low-income residents, but specific criteria have not been discussed.

City officials estimate that the revenue generated by the tax would jump from $366,330 this year to $1.32 million in 2016.

Councilwoman Nancy Moss objects to the rebate for seniors because programs like it are “when government picks and chooses who the winners and losers are.” Miller said he thinks a rebate is “the next best thing” to not collecting the increase.

Miller, along with Councilman Jeff Stehman and Councilwoman Cheryl Brombolich, defend the tax increase because they say it will allow the city to replace and repair important equipment, like police vehicles and ambulances, and fund projects the citizens expect from the city, like road repairs.

The council has “done everything we could” to meet the demands of residents, Miller said.

“Over the last six years, we have been very frugal. We have tightened our belt to the limit that there are no more notches on the belt to tighten it any more,” Miller said.

Councilman Jeff Kypta said he is concerned taxpayers cannot afford the increase.

The taxpayers are just about out of money. That’s why I don’t want to raise any taxes.

Councilman Jeff Kypta

“The taxpayers are just about out of money,” he said. “That’s why I don’t want to raise any taxes.”

Interim City Manager Mitch Bair has said the next lowest utility tax rate of municipalities in the area is 3.09 — more than double Collinsville’s rate.

Moss said she thinks Collinsville’s low rate is a testament to the city’s leadership.

“I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of,” she said. “I think that’s being good stewards to our residents.”

Stehman argued, “You have to spend some money” to improve a community.

“If we can’t invest in our own community to bring it up to speed, up to where we need to be, then how do we expect anyone else to do it? I’d love to see the taxes stay lowest. We’re the lowest on utility; we’re the lowest on property. I’d love to see it stay there,” Stehman said, “but that means the development that we’re looking to try to do and to make this community move up a step, we’re not going to get that. We’re not going to see that.”

City to hire up to 10 additional employees

The budget also moves revenue from the city’s home rule sales tax — $600,000 annually — into the general fund to allow for additions in city staff, according to Bair

The home rule sales tax had added money to capital projects for the last four years. Revenue from the utility tax increase could replace it.

$4.67 Monthly increase for the average residential user with 4 percent utility rate

$19.01 Monthly increase for the average commercial user with 4 percent utility rate

The council gave the permanent city manager, when one is hired, the authority to add as many as 10 employees in 2016 and 2017 as part of each year’s budget.

Collinsville budgets for two years, but the City Council only passed the 2016 budget at its last meeting after a public hearing. It will vote on the 2017 budget on Jan. 11.

In 2016, the budget includes the addition of a city engineer, a certified building official, three laborers in the streets department and an administrative assistant in the police department. A police officer, firefighter, code/zoning compliance officer and a staff planner are the proposed additions in 2017.

The vacant position of streets director, previously held by Rod Cheatham, has been eliminated in the budget. Bair said positions of sewer director and water director have also been eliminated. All of those positions have been replaced by a public works director and a city engineer, a savings of $74,000 in the total cost of employment, according to Bair.

Bair said specifically the streets director position had been “overpaid” based on the duties and compared to what other communities pay employees in similar positions.

Beefing up the fire, police departments

Meanwhile, the 2016-17 budget plan included funding for additional people in the Fire and Police departments, pending approval by the city manager.

Fire Chief Mark Emert requested a staff of 32 be included in the budget for the fire department; the staff is currently at 31.

Emert said the addition is needed to improve “safety, operational securities and efficiency.”

“We’ve had three fatality fires in the city in one year, and not necessarily all those people would be saved, but we’re going to run into a situation where we’re not getting enough firemen to the scene at the right time to save somebody when it’s needed,” Emert said during a recent budget workshop.

The Fire Department has cut costs, Emert said, in his four years with the city.

“I don’t mean to sound disingenuous here because I know everything comes out of the general revenue fund, but we’ve increased the ambulance billing, the efficiency, by close to $200,000 since I’ve gotten here,” he said. “We’ve decreased the overtime imprint on the city from the Fire Department over a period of four years almost now by close to $400,000, and that was because we were getting staffing going.”

Over the last six years, we have been very frugal. We have tightened our belt to the limit that there are no more notches on the belt to tighten it any more.

Mayor John Miller

Bair, who is also the city’s community development director, said the council would be going through union contract negotiations with firefighters “in the coming months.” He suggested the staff additions in the police and fire departments in 2017 be subject to council approval before a new city manager could authorize them.

These positions would come with extensive costs to the city in pensions and benefits.

Police Chief Steve Evans requested a staff of 44 officers and the addition of an administrative assistant. There were 40 sworn officers in September, when Evans presented an operational overview to the council, and plans were in place to hire more officers to reach the previously approved staffing of 43.

Evans requested a 44th officer to balance patrol shifts. He also wanted to eliminate one assistant chief position to create a juvenile detective position.

“To most efficiently run the department like I want to, like I think the community wants to be policed, ... I think the most efficient way is with the structure that I laid out,” he said.

More manpower for Streets Department

The Streets Department had 19 employees through 2009. Today, there are 12, with nine doing daily work and three focused on construction work. The budget included three additional Streets Department laborers to be hired in 2016.

The department’s staffing dipped, Ammann said, when “the economy tanked.”

“It was a balancing act trying to accomplish some capital and figure out how many bodies to do it with,” she said.

Some employees retired, some moved to different departments, but the vacancies were not filled. Acting Director of Public Works Dennis Kress, who is overseeing the department, said no one was laid off.

Moss and Kypta have said the city should contract out some of the work that city employees do in the Streets Department to save costs on pensions and benefits.

“I don’t want to sound like a broken record, and I don’t think I am in terms of trying to figure out ways to do this without adding employees because over the long haul, it’s unsustainable with the pension costs and all the other costs. At some point, it’s going to hit the fan,” Moss said.

Bair said the city has in the past contracted grass mowing work.

“We can do that cheaper. The problem is quality control,” he said. “We used several companies. We caught all of them billing us for cutting when they didn’t.”

If we can’t invest in our own community to bring it up to speed, up to where we need to be, then how do we expect anyone else to do it?

Councilman Jeff Stehman

Staff requested the additions in the Streets Department, Bair said, because it was most cost-effective.

Streets Department employees have not completed any sidewalk work this year, Kress said, and attributed staffing issues to the reason for that. Miller also said crosswalk painting, which had previously been completed every year before the beginning of school, has not been done in four years.

“Why did that, which is first and foremost important for our children’s sake, get pushed aside?” he said. “I think there are a lot of things ... that are not happening that need to be happening. We can’t do it with the number of personnel that are there.”

Stehman said adding employees to the Streets Department is “a no-brainer.”

“I think we have to do it. ... If there’s any way, if the funding’s there, we need to,” Stehman said.

Long-term effects of budget decisions

The addition of 10 employees will cause the general fund’s reserves to dip slightly below the city’s target by the end of 2017, and even further below in the years after that, unless there is a reduction in spending or an increase in revenue in future budgets, Ammann said.

“The council two years from now is going to have to make some difficult decisions if nothing changes,” she said.

Additional employees to be hired in 2016-17 include: a city engineer; a certified building official; three laborers in the Streets Department; an administrative assistant in the police department; a police officer; a firefighter; a code/zoning compliance officer, and a staff planner.

Ammann said property taxes have not been increased in the last eight years, but because spending is now on track to outpace revenue, the council would have to increase property taxes in the future or possibly consider lay offs. Ammann said there may also be new revenue sources down the road, like a tax on medical marijuana, for example, with the opening of the state-approved dispensary in Collinsville.

“I think it’s important to remember that we’re budgeting for 2016 and 2017. Those projections (up to 2021 in the budget) are just there to make the elected officials aware that changes will need to be made in the future,” Ammann said.

Ammann said she is comfortable with the budget, even with the dip in reserves in two years.

“I’m not concerned about that because we won’t spend 100 percent of our budget,” she said. Ammann estimates the city will spend about 80 percent because “we budget conservatively, and we spend even more conservatively.”

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

Utility tax rates

A sampling of the rates of area municipalities:

  • Belleville: 5.15
  • Swansea: 5.15
  • East St. Louis: 5.15
  • O’Fallon: 5.15
  • Maryville: 4.12
  • Edwardsville: 3.61
  • Alton: 3.09
  • Wood River: 3.09
  • Hartford: 3.09
  • Caseyville: 3.09
  • Collinsville: 1.25

Source: Interim City Manager Mitch Bair

Property tax rates

A sampling of the rates of area municipalities:

  • Alton: 2.49
  • Belleville: 1.85
  • Highland: 1.82
  • Wood River: 1.46
  • Edwardsville: 1.33
  • Maryville: 0.98
  • Glen Carbon: 0.86
  • O’Fallon: 0.84
  • Troy: 0.78
  • Collinsville (St. Clair County): 0.6479
  • Collinsville (Madison County): 0.6412
  • Fairview Heights: 0

Source: Finance Director Tamara Ammann

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