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Wednesday, August 2, 2006
Notes from the Town Meeting on the AF City Budget

I went to one of the City's two town meetings last week on the budget and the proposed property tax increase. Here are some of my notes, along with some promises to address larger issues in the near future.

Nearly a week has passed since I attended a town meeting in American Fork on the proposed budget, which includes a 35 percent increase in the City's portion of the property tax. My notes are still on my laptop screen somewhere, and pretty soon the American Fork Citizen might be reporting on it, too, so I'd better just do it.

Here are some things you should know as we begin:

  • Oddly enough, I support the increase as a necessary large, initial step in putting the City and its infrastructure back together after years of increasing disarray.
  • The meeting I attended last Thursday evening was very similar to the same meeting the night before, which I did not attend.
  • The meeting raised some larger issues, which I will treat separately in the near future.
  • My comments here are miscellaneous points, reflecting little effort to organize them, and no attempt at a play-by-play.

The meeting's purpose was to explain the budget, especially the increase, to interested residents. Less than two dozen residents, plus most of the City Council and several other City official, attended.

The meeting began with a long PowerPoint presentation which is now posted at the City web site as a PDF. Mayor Thompson narrated, leading us through the City's many revenue sources and categories of expenses, and pausing frequently for questions and comments from the public and the other officials present. The presentation itself was not very pretty and needed some proofreading before going public, but (a) the content was adequate and (b) we already know I expect too much in that way.

In any case, faulty parallelism, assorted spelling and punctuation glitches, and other writers' bane pale next to the fact that the effort was being made at all. I salute Mayor Thompson and his people for doing this. Note that some formal hearings are legally required in connection with the budget or a tax increase, but these town meetings were not required. Under the previous administrations they probably would not have occurred and would likely not have been worthwhile if they had. But the Thompson administration is sufficiently oriented towards public communication, sufficiently concerned about resident opinion and input, and sufficiently professional to attempt it and to pull it off.

The Mayor and other officials were very patient with many questions and comments, and the questions and comments themselves were, by and large, astute and appropriate.

The tax increase began a few months ago looking as if it would have to be 50 percent, but officials have been able to trim it to 35 percent. Some public concern was expressed that another increase or two may need to occur in the near future, but officials seem confident that this increase will be sufficient for quite a while. The City's share of sales tax revenues from the Meadows on the west side will grow every year; that and other growth will likely allow the City not to increase taxes.

Councilman Dale Gunther noted that the City's bond rating is AA-, which is the highest possible for a city of American Fork's size. This allows the City to borrow funds at the most favorable rates.

The City has about $1.6 million in reserve, about midway between the legal minimum and maximum prescribed by state law.

The tax increase will raise slightly more than one million dollars in new revenue for the general fund. This actually incensed me. I want to ask, "Does this mean the previous administration let the City fall apart because they were afraid to ask for a few hundred thousand more dollars on two or three occasions?" But of course it's not that simple.

As it happens, state law actually mandates that the City's property tax revenue (not counting growth in the form of new homes and businesses) decreases annually in real dollars unless the City passes an increase. The Mayor, I fear, did not do well explaining this complex issue, and a state legislature candidate attending, who thought he knew, was no help whatsoever. The key acronym is CTR -- choose the right, current temple recommend, or Certified Tax Rate, take your pick -- and I'll have to get to that in a separate post, because it is complex and confusing.

We were told that 0.85 to 0.89 percent of sales tax receipts in the city go to the City. I assume that's 0.89 of 6.25, not 0.89 of 100.

Councilman Gunther, who chairs the Finance Committee, noted a couple of times that he would be happy to sit down with anyone in the city and discuss details. He was not exaggerating. He has done it with me several times, on various issues.

There was brief discussion of broadband; I'll treat that in a future post.

Resident and former city council candidate Harold Smith, who has not always been praised here at the blog, offered an excellent, passionate reminder that property taxes affect residents' ability to live in their homes, and that many other taxing authorities combine with the City to create an overall tax burden which oppresses families. Renters and those on fixed incomes may face some difficulties because of the increase.

His are excellent points, and I will return to them in a future post. Meanwhile, however, I note that my sympathy for the two groups mentioned is less than complete. Almost everyone I know who rents in American Fork drives a newer, more expensive car than I do -- so how poor are they, really? And a substantial chunk of money is forcibly removed from my paychecks already to provide that fixed income for seniors and others. I think that if I am shouldering the burden for their support, they can share with me the burden of the City's.

In conclusion, I note that I went to the meeting not to decide if I favored the tax increase, but for other reasons. I dislike taxes generally but have favored this increase for a long time. I went to watch the City's growing commitment to public communication in action, to see the public's response (insofar as those in attendance represented the public), and to hear what, if anything, would be said about municipal broadband.

Stay tuned.

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