Council wrestles with balancing budget with new tax on water, sewer districts
by Jack Mayne
A proposal to impose a new 16 percent tax on sewer and water districts drew the ire of a large number of Des Moines residents at last Thursday night’s City Council meeting.
For well over an hour, residents and the utility districts involved in budget balancing taxes scolded, chastised and criticized the city administration and Council, many calling for staff cuts and the freezing, even lowering, of city staff salaries.
In the end, the utility taxes were put over to the Council session on Nov. 12, while smaller taxes on surface water and cable utilities were moved on for final passage at a later meeting.
More for less
Des Moines resident David Diedrichsen told the Council on Thursday (Oct. 29) that he has been laid off from Boeing four times and each time was rehired to work at a lower pay rate, and said the city is going to have to do more with less.
“Maybe the City of Des Moines needs to be liquidated as a legal entity and absorbed by SeaTac or Normandy Park,” he said to chuckles from the audience. “I don’t understand as a resident, the value to me adding 16 percent to my water bill when the water district is already self-contained and self-funded.
“Why can’t you make do with the funds you’ve got, or cut? Everyone else is cutting. Do more with less.”
Several resident suggested cutting city employee salaries or not giving them raises, even turning some activities over to volunteers.
Mayor Pro Tem Matt Pina said later that there is a view that the city has not been cutting, but it has. City Manager Tony Piasecki said the city staff has been cut often and is in some departments half what it was in 2000.
Adding police officers
Bob Pond said the city voted three times but “we were scammed out of our promised police officers.”
But three officers are included in this budget proposal, but that did not placate him.
“This Council is going against the will of the people,” Pond said.
This increase in utility taxes to 16 percent “is a tax and spend liberal plan all on the back of the taxpayers,” said Pond.
“This is outrageous.”
He said more cuts should come at the same time as the city should strengthen police and fix city streets.
“We are a struggling city and need to focus in on the basics,” he said. “I think the people of Des Moines will never pass a tax again if you do this to people.”
Another resident, Harry Steinmetz, said the increase was too much for the utility districts and that “any raises for anybody is absolutely ill advised.”
Steinmetz said the Council was “having a real problem with transparency and showing that you understand the outrage and the frustration of the community.”
Utility tax may be illegal
Resident Martin Metz said the “drastic increase in the utility taxes of 16 percent” might not be legal. The decision on that will come with a future court case testing whether it is legal for government entities to tax each other.
Metz said the imposition of a 6 percent utility tax last year in SeaTac has led to “a full-blown voter revolt” there.
He said he urged the Council to continue to seek out new business in the city as well as keeping existing ones.
“If as much effort was placed on this as on antagonizing the citizens things would be a lot smoother with jobs and employment bringing the needed revenue that the city needs to operate,” Metz said.
John Rayback, a director of Water District 54 which serves downtown Des Moines, said the city should not tax the district because it provides water for fire suppression. He also noted that the city is one of the district’s customers so the water will cost it more as well as other users.
Candace Urquhart said that since a lot of city residents make less than $40,000 a year that the city consider a 2.6 percent decrease in salaries of city workers, instead of an increase in taxes for hard pressed citizens. She received cheers and applause from the audience.
Several other citizens suggested the city’s financial condition was such that no city worker salary increases should be made.
Utilities protest tax hike
Midway Sewer District manager Ken Kase said his billing system is not set up to collect the tax and also to pay the state additional excise taxes on increased revenue and wants people from the city to “come and talk with us and figure something out here.”
Then it was Southwest Suburban Sewer District’s Ron Hall who said he wondered why the city did not seek to meet with the district to see if some sort of accommodation could be worked out.
Hall wondered if the city was going to inform residents of the 16 percent tax rate “or leave that up to us through a bill,” and that it appeared that the city was “forcing the utility districts to do its dirty work.” Then he noted that some of the city’s calculations on the tax increased revenue projections are faulty.
Nor was there any attempt to negotiate a franchise agreement with the district that could include a utility tax, Hall said. Such agreements are now under negotiation with the cities of SeaTac and Normandy Park where similar utility tax increases recently have been approved.
Hall wanted the city to put the increase on hold and negotiate a franchise agreement.
General Manager Matt Everett of Highline Water District said Des Moines was the third city in the last year to propose increases in the tax rate. He said he was “shocked” when he found that Des Moines was a 16 per cent tax when Normandy Park and SeaTac sought only a 6 percent tax.
Hardship on residents
“The district strongly opposes the city’s proposed utility tax,” said Everett, because it would cause a hardship for Des Moines residents and is a regressive tax. He noted that it was a problem to get the billing software in place to collect the tax, especially since the district spans other city jurisdictions.
Everett noted that the Highline Water District has cut staff by about a third in the past few year and “it has not be without pain.” He suggested the city would be unwise to add three police officers when the city is financially struggling.
Councilmember Matt Pina said the reason to add three police officers was “because we need them.”
At the opening of the public comment was “Redondo Rick” Johnson who read a two-year old state auditors report concerning the declining income to the city and continued to read from the report and from comments about the Council forgetting for whom they worked. Mayor Dave Kaplan said his time had expired, but Johnson continued to talk until his microphone was turned off.
When Johnson left the speaker’s rostrum, Kaplan was clearly heard to say, “Same obnoxious bullshit every week.” Here’s a video:
In point of fact, a new auditor’s report says the city is on the path to repair areas outlined in the report Johnson was reading. That auditor’s report is slated to be discussed at an upcoming Council meeting.
The Council will hold a public hearing on the homeless ordinance Thursday, Nov. 5 at City Hall, but resident Doreen Harper said the city’s proposed rules for faith-based homeless encampments needed to include requiring a 1,000-foot buffer around schools.
“You don’t need homeless people roaming around schools,” Harper said.
City Manager Piasecki said the state law requires the city not have any rules “that unreasonably burden” religious organizations in having an encampment and would address issues at a meeting later.
“The draft (of the homeless ordinance) is the most restrictive that I have seen” that still is within state law,” Piasecki said.
Lawyer on Woodmont
Sheila Brush said it was “very ironic” you are using money to pay for an attorney to review the environmental policy decision on the Woodmont recovery center application when you made it clear it was “for all of you” and “not for any of us here.” She wanted the name of the attorney hired.
Piasecki said they city has not hired an attorney as yet, but the Council ordered final discussions with an attorney.
Brush asked if the name of the attorney would be public when a person is hired and City Attorney Pat Bosmans said a copy of the attorney’s contract would be provided if there were a public records request.
Brush said the Council was putting up a “barrier to justice” and the citizens would have to hire their own attorney to “undo what you did in your negligence to push this through.”