The Athens City Council received a detailed walk-through Friday of the 2012-2013 General Fund budget, which the body is expected to pass during Monday’s regular meeting.
The city has once again prepared a conservative budget and projects revenues of $23.6 million, only $315,000 more than the current budget. Expenditures are estimated at $23,589,17, which is $107,997 less than the current budget.
“This budget is pretty lean to the bone,” said Council President Jimmy Gill.
It’s those lean revenues that had at least two council members raising the possibility of raising the city’s sales tax by one penny to 9 percent. Not all, however, are on board with the idea.
Councilman Harold Wales said members Dr. Milly Caudle and Gill brought up the idea, though Wales added he did not comment on the matter.
Gill said there’s no plan to raise sales tax revenue right now, and added the council would need to get the appropriate information out to citizens before acting on such a measure.
“Going forward, that would be one possible way (to raise revenue),” he said. “The council will look into it.”
Caudle, who will be replaced on the council by Wayne Harper in November, said the extra penny could be used for paving and other priorities, including Athens City Schools. She said if the council put the increase to a vote, she would be in favor of it.
“Every time we get sales tax, the schools get something,” she said. “Athens has always supported the schools, so I think there would be some percentage of (revenue for the schools).”
Mayor Ronnie Marks said he drafted a plan to raise sales tax revenue in 2010, but it never moved forward. He said the city does need additional revenue streams, but added a property tax increase might be better for the citizens.
“Increasing the ad valorem tax is fairer, in my opinion,” he said. “People are already strapped, and it’s those in the median and lower-end economic level who’ll get hit harder (by a sales tax increase).”
Residents who live in Athens pay property taxes of 10 mills to the city, and 30 to the county for a total of 40. Madison residents pay a total of 64.5 mills, while Huntsville pays 65 mills.
Marks said if the council chooses to raise property taxes, it would be put to a vote of the people. However, if the council instead chooses to raise the sales tax rate it could do so without a city referendum.
Whatever path the council chooses, he said he wants those additional revenues reserved for specific line-item projects, including paving or other infrastructure work. He said a percentage should also go to the General Fund, while another part should go to the school system.
“We are actually in really good shape, and this will be studied for a while,” he said, adding the city does “have some critical needs going forward.”
City Finance Director Annette Barnes laid out the budget for council members Friday, and explained why numbers were greater or less than the previous year.
Notable increases in current tax collection include a projected $220,000 increase in gross sales tax receipts and a $15,000 increase in the city’s franchise tax. The city is also expecting a bump of $10,000 in the lodging tax and $14,000 in the $1-per-night lodging fee.
A revenue cut, however, includes a projected $195,000 decrease in TVA-in-lieu-of-tax funds the city normally receives. Barnes said that accounts for a 6-to-10 percent decrease in those funds as approved by the state legislature.
“We need to track this carefully from a legislative standpoint,” Marks told council members. “Anytime the state starts pulling your TVA-in-lieu-of-taxes, it makes a big impact on the city.”
Another decrease in revenue of $83,500 is projected in the city’s court system, which Barnes said is likely because of fewer tickets being issued and fewer fines imposed by the city judge. Police Chief Floyd Johnson told the council his department has placed a greater emphasis on patrolling neighborhoods, which means fewer officers clocking speeding drivers.
“Our plan is to have a roundtable discussion with Chief Johnson and possibly the judge to see if there’s something we can do to increase (that revenue),” Barnes said.
Other revenue increases include the recreation department ($17,520 over current budget), cemetery department ($5,000 over current budget) and sanitation department ($93,700 over current budget).
Salaries in the city’s administrative department are projected to be up $81,322 this year because of the addition of three new positions. Barnes said a 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment is also figured into the General Fund salaries, though broken down by department line item. The city approved its previous COLA in April.
Other expenses over last year include $46,791 for renting the second floor of the Athens Utilities building on Wilkinson Street. The software license and maintenance category shows an expense of $40,000 and was an unbudgeted line item in the current budget.
Fire Chief Tony Kirk requested the council consider adding three full-time firefighters because the department is not currently in line with regulations set forth by the National Fire Protection Association. Kirk said the department faces no penalty for being short-staffed, but if a firefighter is hurt or killed on the job, it could be a legal liability.
“We need 17 personnel per shift to meet the NFPA criteria and at the present time, we have 12,” he said, adding the department’s run numbers have increased 400 percent from 2003 to August 2012. “ … There have been instances where lives have been saved because the fire department got there and revived someone before the ambulance service got there.”
Marks said it would cost the city a minimum of $150,000 per year for three firefighters and to outfit those new hires with equipment.
Kirk said the Alabama Fire College is now open to the public, so it’s possible the city may be able to hire trained firefighters and not have to train them using in-house funds.
Police Chief Floyd Johnson told the council his department is 20 officers short when compared to cities of a similar size. He recommended the council looking at hiring two additional officers per year going forward.
Right now, he only has one vacancy in the department.
The City Council is also expected to pass portions of its appropriations budget at Monday’s meeting, including allotments to schools ($3.433 million), Pryor Field Authority ($30,000) and funds for streetlights ($380,000).
The remaining appropriations are expected to be approved at the Oct. 8 meeting.
The Athens City Council will meet at 5:30 p.m. Monday at the Athens Police Department on West Hobbs Street. A work session begins at 4:30 p.m.