December 25, 1997

Cheney Council Voids Tax Hikes; New Mayor Will Study Options

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Cheney Mayor-elect Amy Jo Sooy takes office next week amid a financial crisis she didn’t create.

She’s in charge of solving it now.

Her first official job starting Jan. 2 will be to figure out how to trim more money from an already pared-back city budget.

The City Council on Tuesday voted 4-to-1 to roll back increases in water, sewer and garbage taxes that would have been worth about $150,000 next year.

The council voted in November to raise the taxes on those utilities to replace about half of a $300,000 annual revenue loss the city is facing as of Jan. 1.

Opponents of the water, sewer and garbage increases submitted 680 signatures on a referendum petition last week. The drive needed 480 valid signatures to force the measure onto the ballot.

The council’s vote on Tuesday accepts the demands of the petitioners and sidesteps a referendum election in March on the controversial water, sewer and garbage rate increases.

Sooy said she wants to study the operations of each city department before deciding what and how much to cut.

“I don’t know how deep we are going to have to go,” said Sooy. “We are in the midst of looking at the options of what we can and can’t do.”

She said any meaningful savings in city operations would take much longer to accomplish.

In the meantime, City Administrator Jim Reinbold has proposed a series of cuts designed to avoid layoffs.

They include:

Stopping mosquito control.

Cutting most travel.

Parking the fire ladder truck.

Holding money out of equipment reserve accounts.

Prohibiting overtime.

Shutting off park sprinklers.

Letting the county control Cheney’s dogs.

Reinbold and Sooy likely will work together to come up with a joint budget-cutting proposal.

Sooy said she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of eliminating some jobs.

The budget crisis started earlier this year when the state auditor found the city was illegally collecting a 12 percent tax on the city-owned electrical utility. State law limits the tax to 6 percent.

Rolling back the electrical tax from 12 percent to 6 percent will cost the city $300,000 in annual revenue out of a $4 million budget for the operations of non-utility departments.

The City Council in November voted to increase other utility taxes to make up $150,000 of the lost revenue. At the time, city officials said residential utility bills would not increase, but some large commercial accounts would enjoy smaller utility tax bills because of the decrease in electrical rates.

Tax opponents circulated the referendum in late November and December, and that forced the city administration and council to reconsider what it had called a tax shift.

Tuesday’s vote repealed the tax increases and set the water, sewer and garbage tax rates at their 1997 levels. Those are 11 percent for sewer and water and 6 percent for garbage.

Voting in favor of returning to the current rates were Eileen Wahl, Bill Shaw, Curt Huff and Kevin Hanson.

Councilman Dwayne Paul voted no. He said he wanted to force the tax-shift measure onto the ballot to let the voters decide.

Reinbold and Sooy both said they hope to have a budget-cutting proposal for the council to consider on Jan. 13 as an amendment to the spending plan approved last fall.

Reinbold said city spending will be restricted until the amended budget is approved.

, DataTimes

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