FORT WAYNE — The survey results were clear, City Controller Pat Roller said: Residents like the city services they have and don’t want to see them cut.
But they also don’t want higher taxes.
Even the City Council’s budget hawk, John Crawford, R-at large – who has often said there are always places to cut a budget – says keeping services without raising taxes is no longer an option.
The council has a choice over the next four months, Crawford said: Raise taxes to keep services as they are, or keep taxes the same and make drastic cuts in road repairs, parks and city services.
“We have choices. We’ve got a bad one over here and a bad one over there,” Crawford said. “Our job is to choose the least bad one.”
Roller’s report to the council Tuesday was the first in a series of reports arising from the city’s Fiscal Policy Group, which has been studying the looming budget crunch for nearly a year. Because of the property tax caps enacted in 2009 that limit taxes on a home to 1 percent of the value, the city has lost $53 million in revenue. The amount it will actually collect in property taxes this year will be $8.4 million less than it collected in 2007.
Among the options the Fiscal Policy Group – a group of people from the public and private sectors – found is moving the cost of fire hydrant maintenance from property taxes to utility bills. That would raise utility bills for the average home about $2.50 a month but free up property taxes for other services.
A 0.5 percent increase in the income tax could pay for new firefighters and police officers, plus provide up to $4.9 million in property tax relief. The city fire department is 30 firefighters below the 375 authorized but cannot afford an academy class. The police department is 21 officers below its 440 authorized and will lose more to retirement this year.
A new property tax levy, called a Cumulative Capital Development Fund, could be added, which would bring in about $1 million a year, and property taxes could be raised over six years to the maximum the state allows.
There also are options such as changing city employee benefits and redirecting income taxes the city already gets from economic development to fixing streets and roads. The city is behind on road maintenance by an estimated $60 million.
Officials were careful to point out that nothing has been decided.
“The Fiscal Policy Group was a think tank,” Crawford said. “It had no power, no decisions were made, no votes were taken.”
Next week’s discussion will center on income taxes.
Council members gave final approval to extending the city’s contract with its firefighters union one year. The deal keeps every aspect of the current contract the same with the exception of a 2 percent pay raise that all other city employees got this year. Fire Chief Amy Biggs has said the contract will be renegotiated for 2014.
Members also gave final approval to agreements with five lawn-care companies for the city’s annual mowing contract for $423,737, the same as last year.