By Bob Balgemann


Residents didn’t have a vote in whether the city imposed a five percent utility tax in 2000. Now, 16 years later, Alderman Clint Morris lobbied for an advisory referendum to be held Nov. 8, giving voters a chance to be heard.

However, his motion to that effect failed, 6-4, at the Monday, June 27 Committee of the Whole meeting.

Morris laid out the history of the tax, which now generates about $2.2 million a year and, since 2000, has brought in $34.475 million.

When it was imposed, he recalled that residents were told revenue would be used for road improvements. But, in a 7-3 vote in 2010, the income was shifted from being its own line item to the general fund and from then on it was spent on other purposes, such as police, fire, and public works department salaries.

In a memorandum dated March 24, budget and finance director Becky Tobin pointed out the city would not be able to balance its budget without using some of the utility tax. Further, she stated it would be forced to raise property tax, impose a Home Rules sales tax, or lay off employees.

Still, Morris wanted the revenue to resume being spent on infrastructure projects. That’s what residents were told in 2000 and he thought that’s how it should be done today.

Mayor Mike Chamberlain told him he made many good points.

He said the council of that time created the utility tax in good faith. However, today, revenue is not at the point that the city can use all of the utility tax for road improvements.

Alderman George Crawford said he agreed with Morris, that more transparency was needed so residents could see exactly how that tax money was being spent.

Mayor Chamberlain countered that “all the (tax) money has been accounted for. We have a transparent budget; it is available to the public” online and at city hall.

“We prioritize what needs to be done. Without the utility tax we would not have the police and fire departments we have today.”

Since 2000, a report shows $24.482 million has been spent on 34 projects. In the current 2016-17 fiscal year $2.7 million will be spent on the following: North State Street streetscape: $700,000; State Street paving: $500,000; and Columbia Avenue reconstruction: $1.5 million.

In more recent years, Alderman Dan Snow said $2.5 million was spent on salaries of police, firefighters, and public works department employees.

“We as a city are not living lavishly,” he said.

Only one of the current aldermen, Mark Sanderson, was on the board that approved the tax and he said he voted against it. He said the idea was to do away with special assessments, charged against residents who lived in an area benefitting from the improvements.

Public Works Director Brent Anderson said the special assessment process was cumbersome. In addition, quite a bit of money went into legal fees. It was felt “the utility tax was a better method.”

Currently, the need for road improvements is still there, he continued. Some $35 million worth of work remains among streets on the original 20-year list.

Morris authorized the motion for the advisory referendum and it received the needed second.

Before the vote, the mayor asked aldermen Morris and Sanderson that if the referendum passed, where would they get the $2 million to replace the lost revenue.

Morris followed with a rhetorical question: how did the city do it before the tax?

“We balanced the budget, obviously,” he said.

Mayor Chamberlain followed with a rhetorical answer. He said the situation the city had in 2000 usually happens when a municipality lets infrastructure go the point that it’s mandated to effect improvements, even though it doesn’t have the taxes for the work.

The vote saw aldermen Morris, Sanderson, Clayton Stevens and Ron Brooks in support of having the advisory vote. Dissenting were aldermen Daniel Arcevalo, John Sanders, Crawford, Wendy Franks, Tom Ratcliffe, and Dan Snow.



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