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Reduced Real Estate Tax Rate Proposed in Upcoming City Budget

For all the earlier talk of doom and gloom early in the coronavirus financial forecasts, City Manager Mark Jinks’ proposed FY 2021 budget seems relatively painless.

As laid out by Jinks, the operating budget is a 1.9% proposed increase over last year’s, with a 2 cent real estate tax rate reduction, no major service reductions, and fully funds the proposed school CIP and operating budget.

The budget was reviewed at a City Council meeting last night (Tuesday) with a public hearing planned tomorrow (Thursday).

Jinks said the budget was made possible by $11.8 million in expenditure savings, driven in part by leaving 38 currently vacant positions unfilled. These positions, Jinks said, weren’t concentrated in any one particular department but were spread out across the city. No police department, fire department or emergency medical personnel were among the unfilled positions, he said.

The main budget proposed by Jinks includes a real estate tax rate reduction from $1.13 to $1.11, though Jinks also included other options to leave the tax rate as-is and fully finance some programs like a planned overhaul of DASH services.

In the existing budget, DASH will have to reallocate funding away from routes in less dense parts of the city if it wants to achieve its high density transit corridor goals — meaning some residents in areas like Seminary Hill could lose their local bus routes.

On the topic of transit: the budget also included a note that the King Street Trolley is planned to return in September, hopefully at the start of a fall tourist season.

Some of the budget’s goals include a renewed focus on what Jinks called “aggressively increased stormwater utility work,” including increasing maintenance on the stormwater system and new hires from additional engineers to sanitation workers.

A $5 million Holmes Run Trail restoration is also included in capital funding, with the goal of building a stronger dam on the creek that can withstand a harder beating after 2019’s devastating floods.

One of the other anticipated projects moving forward in next year’s budget is municipal fiber.

“We’ve been talking about replacing our rental from Comcast with our own network, which will give us and the school system greater capacity,” Jinks said. “In this project, we’re building two tubes, digging one for ourselves and a vacant tube next to it that we will be working to get a private sector entity to provide broadband service of some kind.”

Jinks said the multi-year construction project to connect 100 city and school facilities will start next year.

One of the biggest expenditures pushed back is a planned City Hall renovation. The city’s facilities are badly outdated, with some infrastructure dating back to just after World War II. Jinks said that renovation was pushed back in part because, with teleworking coming into the fore during the pandemic, “we don’t know what the future workforce will look like yet.”

The budget added 26.5 new positions, 18 of which are in the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. In large part, these new jobs were part of a process to bring the city’s sanitation work in-house. Jinks said most of those 18 jobs are staffing for vehicles to pick up yard waste.

Jinks said departments scrubbing their budget and Federal aid through the worst of the pandemic played a big role in putting the budget together.

“This was probably the most uncertain budget process we’ve ever had,” Jinks said.

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