The Helper mayor and city council members listen intently as a citizen expresses his opinions on the tax increase. The room in Civic Auditorium has 40 chairs and was standing-room-only.
The Helper City Council compromised on its property tax increase Thursday night, agreeing to a 65 percent hike instead of the proposed 86 percent. For a $95,000 house, it means an extra $61.50 a year. It would have been $81.41 a year at the higher rate.
The vote came after a two-hour public hearing on the matter attended by a standing-room-only crowd at the Civic Auditorium council chamber. One by one, citizens rose to speak their opinions, which basically grilled the mayor and council on four major points:
"What are you going to do with the money?"
"Can't you economize somewhere?"
"Couldn't we do with less than an 86 percent increase?"
"What's going to happen to those of us on fixed incomes?"
Mayor Dean Armstrong was ready with responses.
The city needs the additional property tax revenue to make up for the $130,000 to $150,000 loss of sales tax revenue caused by the exemption the legislature granted for certain mine supply equipment. That revenue is crucial to stop the hemorrhaging of cash out of the water and electric departments. Those departments have for at least a decade been subsidizing the city's general fund. "We've been living on the backs of our utilities for a very long time," Armstrong commented.
As a result, there has been no money for improvements. The city's 70-year-old water system is springing leaks all over town and overhead wires have insulation hanging down in many places. Side streets are decaying. To this, Armstrong stated that there's not much sense in repaving a street if it has to be dug up in a little while to fix a water line leak.
There are grants and loans available, the mayor explained, but they all require matching money. For instance, the city stands a good chance of landing a federal emergency grant for water system upgrades. The feds would match every $1 of city money with $4 in federal funds. If the city has no money, then there is no way to qualify for federal or state grants anymore.
He said the city has also lost out on some federal stimulus money because it has not had a capital improvements plan revision since 1986, and as a result had no "shovel ready" projects on the books that could have been funded. The city is ready to hire consulting engineers to put together such a plan, but consultants cost money.
In terms of economizing, Armstrong said the city has not replaced two employees who left and the city's budget does not include pay raises for its workers. Five years worth of double-digit health insurance increases have added to costs, too. Some citizen suggestions included using red gas instead of diesel in the city's maintenance equipment and studying ways to improve efficiency at the library and museum.
Armstrong said the city would look into that, and added that citizens should not hesitate to offer additional suggestions any time for saving money.
In her turn at the podium, Helper citizen and local Democratic Party Chairperson Jean Boyack told the audience that those on fixed incomes may be able to find some help by filling out tax abatement requests at the county offices. Those abatements are intended to help people with hardships.
Several citizens noted that the proposed 86 percent increase was too big for a one-time hit, and suggested that the city raise taxes in steps so people could plan and budget. That was something the council did consider in its budget meeting after the hearing. The room had all but emptied after the hearing, even though the budget session where the decision was made was as open to the public as the tax hearing. Four citizens heard the discussion and vote.
There was some talk of implementing the phased-in increase, but City Recorder Jona Skerl advised that council that this was not legal. Each tax increase requires its own separate hearing and voice vote.
There was no discussion of abandoning the increase. When it came to adopting a motion for the smaller hike of 65 percent, Councilman Brandon Wise declared, "We were elected because we promised to listen to the people." The people who had recognized the need for the increase at the hearing made it clear they wanted a series smaller hikes instead of the big one, he stated.
The council voted 4-1 for the 65 percent hike, then voted unanimously to adopt the budget with the increase included. Councilman Chris Pugliese was the sole dissenter. After the meeting, he explained that the difference between the 86- and 65 percent was "only about $2 a month for the average taxpayer," but that it would make a big difference in the city's plans to bring its budget back into line.
The lesser amount means that the subsidy of the general fund by utilities will continue, but it will be reduced. Mayor Armstrong said the city will have to tighten its belt a few more notches.