Williams votes to put sales tax on ballot
The Williams City Council is asking voters to continue a half-cent sales tax first approved in 2007, but unlike that increase, this time it would be permanent.
In practical terms, the tax rate would be the same as being paid right now – 7.75 percent.
But in 2007, voters approved the increase with the expectation the rate would return to the old level in April 2013.
This November measure, if approved, would set the tax rate indefinitely.
The unanimous vote came after the council completed its second financial workshop on Wednesday. The budget information clearly showed without the sales tax the city would likely have to make deep cuts to Police, Public Works and other general fund departments.
The Fire Department also would be impacted, though that would be subject to negotiations between the city and the fire authority.
The city pays for 70 percent of the fire budget, and while that percentage may continue, the overall budget – and therefore the level of service – would be subject to change.
City officials agree, a lot if riding on the November vote.
“We will have to bite the bullet if that half-cent tax doesn’t come through, and then everything in on the table,” Mayor John Troughton Jr. said.
The tax represents about $400,000 annually, or about 14 percent of general fund revenue, city officials reported.
City Administrator Chuck Bergson said with the sales tax, the city’s financial outlook is pretty positive over the next few years, and even out to the projected 10 years the workshop was designed to examine.
And Bergson has argued all along that visitors to the city would pay the lion’s share of the tax, not the residents.
But Councilman Don Barker is not convinced the financial picture is that rosy even with the sales tax.
Barker argued the council needs to put an immediate freeze on all employee positions and salaries, and combine jobs where possible.
“The present rate (of spending) and salary is not sustainable even with the sales tax,” Barker said. “We will need to find additional revenue.”
He suggested the city has been too “liberal” in its budgets over the last four years – budgets he admits he voted to approve.
He noted, as an example, the Police Department in 2007-08 had a $900,000 budget and five employees. This fiscal year, the budget is $1.4 million and the department has 14 on staff.
He said he could have selected any department to show the spending pattern, but used the police because it is the largest, representing 49 percent of the general fund.
Barker’s comments sparked a response from police Chief Jim Saso, who said the comparison is misleading.
“When I took over in 2006, yes, you only had five people, but that is because you had a max exodus of employees,” Saso said.
He argued most of his current positions simply filled vacant ones, some are paid for out of grants, others were needed to meet enforcement goals of the council, and some, such as code enforcement, he did not want at all.
“And public safety needs to be considered,” Saso said.
Bergson said any budget or personnel decisions made prior to the November election is premature because the city simply will not know what the bottom line is until the sales tax issue is decided.
He argued that the budget projections being shown the council during the workshops are based on a worst-case-scenario that reflects little or no economic growth.
Bergson feels the reality will be a stronger economic performance.
It was also noted that the city has more than $1 million in reserves.
Still, a barebones look at the budget was the purpose of the workshops, and Troughton is hoping the city will develop a plan to address such a contingency rather than, as he has stated, pass on more debt and difficult decisions to future councils.
A third workshop, scheduled for 9 a.m. March 7, will focus on more specifics than the first two.