Hearings provide insight into FY2022-23 budget

Terry Rogers Government & Politics, Headlines, Milford Headline Story

Over three nights, Milford City Council reviewed the FY2022-23 budget with presentations from various department heads regarding revenue and expenditures. The total balanced budget is $52,858,538. Much of the increase in the budget was related to personnel costs as vacant positions are filled in various departments. The budget also includes $2.6 million not spent in the FY2022 budget. About $200,000 of the budget was covered by American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA funds).

“I think there are a couple of issues moving forward,” Mark Whitfield, City Manager, said. “I should say we’re dependent upon bond bill money and other grant money for some of the projects. And one of the things I need input from council on when we get to that part is if you see projects that are slated for funding to be from other sources that are a high priority, and you really want to see those done, you need to let us know because we need to shift some things around to make sure we get the priorities that you want in terms of capital projects. The other issue that we have is just the bandwidth of our staff of carrying out all these projects. I’m not keen on adding additional staff to see all these get done, but I think we have to be realistic in terms of what a few people have the time to be able to do to carry out all these projects. So again, your priorities are something that I really would like to hear on capital and on the employment side. We have some challenges, and we continue to look at how best to fill those positions.”

Last year, council approved a small tax increase that would allow the city to reduce its dependency on realty transfer tax (RTT) funds that had previously been used to balance the budget. The goal was to reduce the use of RTT funding by $100,000 each year over three years. Councilman Jason James asked if the tax increase resulted in more revenue than $100,000 per year, could the city reduce its use of RTT funds sooner. City finance manager Lou Vitola explained that if the tax revenue yielded more than $100,000 in one year, it was possible that the amount of RTT funds used to balance the budget could be reduced, but that it should be completely eliminated in three years. Councilman Andy Fulton asked if the reassessment of property in Kent and Sussex County would increase revenue for Milford.

“It shouldn’t but it depends on how we treat the change in assessed value when Kent and Sussex are complete with the reassessments,” Vitola said. “If Kent and Sussex both reassess at levels that are twice current levels and our property tax receipts therefore double, we will cut the rate in half such that revenue does not increase. There’s state law in effect where we can’t increase more than 15%.”

Under the IT Department, Councilman Fulton asked if the proposal for the city to offer internet service to residents would fall under his budget and he explained that it would be a combination. Whitfield commented that a study to determine the feasibility of offering internet service was included in the Capital Improvement Plan, also included as part of the budget. City Planner Rob Pierce was asked by Councilman Todd Culotta if his budget included enough personnel to keep up with building code enforcement.

“Yeah, I think burden over the last couple of years was more the building permits and keeping up with those components and licensing. Since we brought in a second permit technician, it reduced the burden on the other permit technician, and we are able to keep up with more of the administrative work. That was kind of where the log jam was, to be honest with you. The code officials were keeping up with their end but permitting and licensing was really the heavy workload in the office.”

When council discussed the Capital Improvement Plan portion of the budget, several items were discussed. The city is looking into repairing several bridges in town and doing some streetscaping in the downtown area. The city is seeking a grant to install two public restrooms downtown and the CIP also includes several parking lot upgrades as well as an upgrade to the front of City Hall. Parks and Recreation Director Brad Dennehy reported that one of the goals for his department was the acquisition of more land that would be used as park land and to focus on beautification of Milford. Dennehy explained that these focuses were the result of a recent citizen’s survey that pointed out residents are looking for more recreational activities and that they would like to see downtown Milford look more beautiful. Councilman Jason James asked if Dennehy had the staff to handle new parkland adequately.

“To be honest Councilman James, over the next fiscal year, I would definitely like to see a full time gardener come on board,” Dennehy said. “I’d like to see some commendable growing and I think we could do a lot better job of we’re looking forward down the track. We’re going to absolutely try to implement the purchase the 200 acres that we’re looking at and all the activities that could put in place. That’s a long range plan of land acquisition.”

The longest discussion during the budget hearings were on the final night when council looked at the City Hall portion. The budget includes increases to Downtown Milford Inc. for the Ladybug Festival and the Chamber of Commerce for Greater Milford for the Riverwalk Festival. In addition, both the Milford Library and the Milford Museum will receive increases they requested. However, Carlisle Fire Company requested $217,000 in this year’s budget but only $140,000 was allotted. Whitfield explained that the budget did include a tax incentive for fire company members who lived in the city as a way to encourage volunteers and to improve response times.

“I fully support the incentive for anything that’s related to getting better response int the city for the sake of all of our citizens and I know that the fire department did come and ask for a meaningful increase from the $140,000,” Councilman Fulton said. “Before this budget is done, before council makes a decision, I am not opposed to an increase to the fire company, but I know firsthand what our greatest needs are and I’m trying to get the fire company to acknowledge, to verbally commit to the reality that we don’t currently have the personnel to improve response time to save lives and property from fire or who need EMS. I would like for council to at least think about it because it’s really important.”

Councilman Culotta agreed with Councilman Fulton.

“The Fire Department is obviously volunteer for the most part and yes, I agree with you, I don’t necessarily want to increase because everything’s gone up operationally,” Councilman Culotta said. “We know that the volunteer firefighter has become a thing of the past. So, our concern is trying to put incentives in to keep pushing off the need for a full time fire department and a tax increase, so I am all about that. Do we have any details on what we are saving with a volunteer fire company?” Whitfield stated that when they last contracted with the fire department, it was determined the volunteer company saved $30 a year in property taxes.”

Councilman Michael Boyle pointed out that council had that discussion with the fire company last time they were in front of them and that it was almost as if the representatives were afraid to admit they were struggling with staffing.

“There’s towns smaller than Milford that have a hybrid type of relationship, with a city budget smaller than ours, that are actually paying for some of the benefits wages because of this type of thing,” Councilman James said. “There’s no reason why Milford can’t do it as there are plenty of models already out there.”

Councilman Culotta suggested a workshop where council could discuss the needs of the fire company with members, not just with the company leadership. He felt it might be beneficial to talk with younger members as well as older members to see what the needs were and where the city could help. Councilman Dan Marabello suggested that the city begin to create a reserve fund that could be in place should the need arise to shift to a fully paid department.

“I don’t disagree, and I think we need to have more dialogue,” Whitfield said. “We also need to understand what their needs are and how can we help them. Not just giving an increased dollar amount, but how can we give them more money that is going to meet our objectives.”

Council will approve the budget next month.

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