More than a quarter-million dollars in changes were made by the Eau Claire City Council last fall before approving a budget.
But leading up to next week’s vote on the 2020 city budget, council members are suggesting no amendments to the spending plan crafted by the city’s staff.
“There’s a lot of really good things already included in the budget,” Councilman Andrew Werthmann said. “Council members feel good about where this budget is going.”
Currently the longest-serving member, he couldn’t recall another budget in his nearly 11 years on the council that didn’t have any changes proposed before the final vote.
Werthmann attributed the lack of changes this time to City Manager Dale Peters’ budget already including funding for several initiatives the council has pushed for.
“There’s been strong and positive dialogue between the city manager and City Council to come up with a budget that closely aligns with the council’s priorities,” Werthmann said.
That includes a new associate planner position, which would allow city staff to work more on affordable housing and neighborhood outreach. Expanded hours for in-person absentee voting at City Hall before elections also is in the proposed budget. And all neighborhood associations will get $200 from the city next year. In summer, the council approved a city projects plan that allocates a total of $700,000 for affordable housing in 2020, which will be included in the budget through a vote on Tuesday.
Peters attributed the absence of proposed amendments to additional planning he did with the council while drafting the budget.
“Parallel to our work on the budget, we’ve been working on a strategic plan that outlines the goals and objectives of the City Council,” he said. “We worked to produce a budget that aligns with the strategic plan and provides resources needed to address priorities.”
The council will hold a public hearing Monday night on next year’s proposed budget before meeting again the following afternoon to approve it.
Property taxes will rise slightly next year under the proposed budget. The owner of a $174,000 home in Eau Claire will see the city portion of their tax bill rise by $23, reaching $1,422.
Aided by new construction, but constrained by state-imposed limits, the overall amount of property taxes collected by the city will grow by over $1.3 million.
Taxes are just one part of the budget, which also is funded through fees, state and federal monies, charges for services and borrowing. The city’s total spending is slated for $155.1 million next year, a 2% increase over the current budget, according to finance director Jay Winzenz.
Councilman Jeremy Gragert had mulled a budget amendment for a second early voting site in addition to City Hall where people can cast ballots before Election Day. He had specifically mentioned this as a way to reduce long lines at polling places on or near the UW-Eau Claire campus, which he attributed to many students using same-day voter registration.
However, he opted not to pursue the budget change for 2020 as it would mean cuts elsewhere.
“Our budget is just too tight to make it happen this quickly,” Gragert said.
He is still considering the potential for more early voting sites in the future, but for 2020 — which has a primary and general election for president both expected to attract high turnout — he’s hoping that additional poll workers during busy hours on Election Day could help reduce lines.
Like Werthmann, Gragert said the lack of proposed changes to the 2020 budget is a testament to the city manager incorporating the council’s priorities early in the process.
“We have a pretty good budget in front of us,” Gragert said.
Last November, the council made $244,800 in changes before approving the budget to create two new library positions and three new programs.
Those significant amendments to the 2019 city budget did become a topic of debate during spring’s City Council elections. Some challengers decried them as “last-minute” changes to a budget developed over months, but incumbents defended the necessity of the amendments and that they abided city procedures to make them. In January, the council also had to shift some money in the budget to fund portable restrooms in several parks, which was among cuts made to fund the new library jobs.