Helper mayor defends proposed tax hike
Helper Mayor Dean Armstrong said he doesn't expect to hear any cheering about the city's proposed 86 percent hike in property taxes, but he also said he can defend it.
In an interview Wednesday, he said citizens need only look at the flood damage caused by last Sunday's cloudburst. "Because we don't have adequate storm drainage, roads were damaged," he explained. Armstrong added that a glance up will show some frayed wires and tilted electrical poles in the town's electric system.
Ordinarily, a municipal utility such as electric or water should be able to carry its own weight in the city budget, with property and sales tax payments going into the general fund for other basic services like police and fire protection. However, for the past decade or so, any surplus in the utility departments has been going into the general fund instead of upgrades. As a result, "We've been doing repairs, not improvements," he declared. The water department, for example, chases down and patches two to three major leaks a week on the city's aging system.
Add to that the fact that the city's sales tax revenue, like Wellington's, has been impacted by the state's decision to exempt certain mining equipment from paying sales tax. That has cost the city up to 15 percent of its budget, anywhere from $130,000 to $150,000 per year, Armstrong said.
For those reasons, maintaining even the current level of services is untenable. The property tax increase is necessary to keep the city running, he stated.
That increase would hike annual payment on a $95,000 house to $176.03 from the current $94.62, a jump of $81.41. A business which now pays $172.04 on a $95,000 facility would see that tax go up to $320.05, a rise of $148.01.
Armstrong said the dollar amount is modest. The size of the increase is big on a percentage basis because the city has not adjusted its rates in at least five years. Even with the tax hike, Helper will still be in the range of what similar cities charge, he added.
The mayor insists the city has been doing a good job holding down expenses. There is no pay raise for city employees this year, although health insurance costs the city covers have gone up by 20 percent. Helper, like other cities, has been hit with double digit insurance increases for the past five years.
According to Armstrong, unless the city gets its revenue stream back into balance, it will be out of the running for crucial grants or loans from agencies like the Permanent Community Impact Board. "The funding environment has changed," he explained. Appropriations don't come as outright grants anymore. They come in packages of grants, loans and matching funds. If the city can't show that it can carry its share of the load, it won't qualify, he said. Helper has no spare change that it can apply as leverage in getting outside funding.
The city has scheduled a public hearing on the matter for August 19 at 6 p.m. in the Civic Auditorium.