Council firm on $4.9M levy in 2016

Published 10:44 am Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Austin City Council voted 6-0 Monday to set the city’s 2016 levy at $4.9 million — a levy increase of $565,000.

That increase looks a lot bigger than it actually is, according to city staff. The city will receive about $140,000 in new taxes from the Holiday Inn area, which has a tax increment finance district set to expire at the end of this year. That will cover about 3 percent of the increased levy.

In addition, about 2 to 3 percent of taxes usually comes from new commercial and residential properties, which means a 6 to 7 percent increase is what will actually show up on tax bills next year.

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The council is set to formally approve next year’s levy at its Sept. 8 public meeting, well in advance of the state deadline of Sept. 30. After that point, council members can’t increase the levy, but they can still reduce it before tax statements are mailed out toward the end of the year.

Next year’s increase will go toward funding a new police officer, a new detective, a Jay C. Hormel Nature Center employee and a new parks and recreation department worker with the levy increase.

City staff would hire the nature center and parks employees midway through 2016 to save money.

Though the council decided to add more staff, it wasn’t as willing to add more grants to the city budget. Council members voted 4-2 during a work session Monday to give $7,500 to the Mower County Historical Society next year from its contingency fund after the historical society asked for $10,000.

While the historical society will receive money in 2016, it’s unclear whether the city will give similar grants in the future. The city normally designates grant money for area organizations in its budget each year, but using part of the city’s $150,000 contingency fund means the $7,500 grant is more of a one-time payment rather than a continued investment moving forward.

Though some council members acknowledged the historical society’s role in Austin, others believed the Mower County Board of Commissioners should have increased its contributions to the historical society rather than the city.

Council member Michael Jordal voted against the request after he questioned whether the city should get involved if residents already contribute to the historical society through county taxes.

“Now the citizens of Austin are going to get taxed twice as much,” he said.

In addition, Council member Judy Enright said she wasn’t comfortable giving money to the historical society if it was going to be used for salaries, as she believed the county should bear staff-related expenses. Enright proposed freezing current donation levels and redistributing money between organizations to make room for the historical society.

Yet Council member Steve King, who proposed the $7,500 grant, believed the historical society should receive some city support for its services.

“It is an asset to us in the long run,” he said.

Mayor Tom Stiehm predicted historical society staff would likely present a stronger case to continue its grant during next year’s budget discussion.