Mayor’s 2003 budget: tax hikes, layoffs

Should the Rockford City Council approve Mayor Doug Scott’s 2003 budget? Increases in the telephone tax, water rate and sanitation fee may be included. The budget also calls for cutting 40 positions from the city payroll and layoffs.

Scott is asking for an increase in the local telephone tax from 1 percent to 6 percent. He also wants to levy a 5 percent tax on water bills. The additional proposed taxes will add about $3 million in new revenue.

The mayor’s budget, which was revealed Dec. 23, attempts to address about $10 million deficit, due to a $3.7 million decline in tax revenues for the year. For the first time since Rockford lost Home Rule in 1984, the budget asks for layoffs of city employees, and 40 positions will be eliminated. The affected employees will be notified this week of their impending layoff. The city may save $5 million through the elimination of the positions.

Alderman Frank Beach (R-10) said he would like a detailed copy of the budget before all council members review it together Jan.4. Beach said he wants time to study the proposal before the meeting.

John Strandin, city communications coordinator, said the reason a detailed budget was not distributed Dec. 23 was to enable the city to notify employees of their layoffs before details were released. Strandin added that council members will receive a detailed budget before Jan. 4.

To provide perspective, in Feb. 1992, 12.3 percent of people in Rockford were unemployed. In October 2002, 7.3 percent of people in Rockford were unemployed. Strandin said to the best of his memory, there were no layoffs in 1992.

The tax increases are expected to cost a typical Rockford homeowner an extra $60 per year, if the budget is approved. The final city budget must be completed by the end of March.

Under the plan, the city will shift $1 million from the motor fuel tax and mass transit revenue to the general fund. Scott also hopes additional savings will be gained by renegotiating the solid waste disposal contract.

The Oct. 9 and Oct. 16 editions of The Rock River Times published several articles concerning the city’s waste disposal contract with Winnebago Reclamation, Inc.—a subsidiary of William Charles, Ltd. At two September city council meetings, Beach voiced concerns about the contract that the Times examined.

One item the articles suggested was that the city was not receiving the “favored” or cheapest rate that was guaranteed in the contract. In other words, no one dumps into Pagel Pit at a lower rate than the city. For 2002, the city paid $52.33 per ton and has dumped about 55,800 tons of garbage into Pagel Pit, which is on Linden Road. However, Rock River Water Reclamation District dumped its sludge for $23.50 per ton for years.

If the city had been dumping at the same rate as the Rock River Water Reclamation District in 2002, the Times estimates the city would have saved $1,608,714 this year. Had Rockford paid the same rate as Rock River Water Reclamation District since the start of the contract in 1995 to the present, the city would have saved about $8.3 million—more likely $10 million, which is all that is needed to cover the current deficit.

Strandin said the mayor’s plan is to reduce the rate the city pays for dumping at Pagel by at least $1 million per year until the contract expires in 2004.

Reportedly, nearly every department had its budget cut by 10 percent, except the police and fire departments. However, the police and fire departments will each leave four positions unfilled, should the budget remain intact.

Alderman Pat Curran (R-2) expressed unhappiness with the tax increases. However, Alderman Linda McNeely (D-13) said she could not see any way to not increase taxes without cutting into the police and fire budgets.

Scott is scheduled to receive an 8.75 percent pay increase from $87,500 to $95,000 in April. However, Scott will not accept the $7,500 raise. Strandin said Scott will probably return the increase each pay period in 2003. Scott said, “At a time when a lot of good folks will be leaving through no fault of their own, it didn’t seem right to keep the increase.”

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