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City considers tax hike for tree care

Extra millage would pay for trimming, removal and planting

Altoona property owners will pay an additional 0.15 of mill in real estate tax, if City Council ultimately approves a 2020 budget proposed Monday by Interim City Manager Peter Marshall.

The additional money generated by raising the total levy to 5.279 mills would go to create a fund to pay for the care of street trees, potentially relieving property owners of that responsibility.

The extra millage would raise city real estate tax on a property assessed at $100,000 by $15 to $528.

That extra millage will bring in an additional $280,000 a year in revenue for a maintenance fund that would pay for trimming, removal and planting.

The creation of the fund is council’s response to unrest among residents who were ordered about a year ago to trim or remove trees, mainly on Seventh and Eighth streets, that had been planted by the city in the 1980s and that were being hit by Amtran’s new Compressed Natural Gas buses, which are higher than previous buses.

Council members at the time suggested that it wasn’t fair to hold property owners accountable for trees the city had planted.

“We don’t want another Eighth Street,” said Councilman Dave Butterbaugh Monday. “This (fund) will eliminate that.”

The fund will also enable the planting of more “sensible” trees that won’t break up sidewalks and curbs and won’t tend to intrude into the right-of-way, Butterbaugh said.

There are many areas of the city “adversely affected” by trees planted in previous generations that weren’t ideal for their locations, Butterbaugh said.

“Most everybody agrees it’s nice to have a green city,” said Councilman Bruce Kelley. But the expectation that property owners would maintain that green cover has proven “to be a little unrealistic,” he said.

Putting the new plan into practice will require an ordinance and time to catch up with a backlog of needed work, officials indicated.

The proposed budget calls for revenues of $33.7 million and expenses of $33.5 million, for an operating surplus of $134,000 for next year, according to Marshall.

The current year is expected to end with an operating surplus of $176,000, Marshall said.

The city expects to end the year with a contingency fund of $5.2 million, according to Finance Director Omar Strohm.

That fund could be used if necessary to help pay for the city’s share of Municipal Separate Storm Sewer costs imposed by the Intergovernmental Stormwater Committee, of which the city is a member, and for construction of a pavilion in Heritage Plaza.

A changed post-New Year’s council can consider other projects that could be done with the contingency money, said Councilman Eric Cagle, who didn’t run for re-election.

The contingency fund is one of three pots of money the city created in recent months from what had been an approximately $11 million unassigned fund balance, according to Kelley and Strohm.

The others are a vehicle replacement fund designed to eliminate the need for much of the city’s traditional capital borrowing and grant match fund is designed to allow the city to respond quickly to grant opportunities.

Council chose to break up the big surplus into the contingency fund, the vehicle replacement fund and the grant match fund under Marshall’s guidance instead of following previous Manager Marla Marcinko’s recommendations that included buying nice-to-have items like a $100,000 Christmas tree for Heritage Plaza, Kelley said.

“We Grinched it,” Butterbaugh said of the tree proposal.

Council believes the current plan for the excess money is prudent and closer to “the highest and best use” for it, Kelley said.

Council had a “sackful of cash” and didn’t want to squander it by picking project after project just because it could, Kelley said. “Then all of a sudden it (would be) gone,” he stated.

The proposed budget calls for a 2 percent increase in employee wages and the equivalent of a 4 percent increase in benefits, Marshall said.

It calls for adding two new positions to the Public Works Department — engineering manager and a utility right-of-way inspector.

The engineering manager will provide “a little relief” to Public Works Director Nate Kissell, by doing engineering specifications, so Kissell can spend more time in the field and more easily manage the department’s 45 employees, Marshall said.

The right-of-way inspector will perform the necessary inspections required by the recent decision to place the responsibility for repairing street cuts on Peoples Natural Gas, Kissell said.

The budget also calls for upgrading a position in the Fire Department to assistant fire inspector to eliminate payment of overtime to trained fire officers for that needed work, Marshall said.

And it calls for upgrading a position in Human Resources to management level, according to Marshall.

The budget calls for allocating $860,000 to the vehicle replacement fund and $126,000 to the Central Blair Recreation and Park Commission.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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