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How to re-arrange Newport’s city budget to slow down sewer and water rate increases, including other funding strategies.

Newport City Hall

Newport City Hall

When thinking of participating in a city budget planning meeting, many people would prefer to consider more pleasant things to do with their time like contemplating a hang nail or a recurring migraine. But tonight’s Newport budget hearing might turn out to be something quite interesting, if not educational.

Newport is in a budget dilemma – it’s sewer and water delivery systems have been in the ground, in some places, for three-quarters of a century. And it’s acting like it. Pipes are failing. Some pumps stations belong in a museum. Public Works Director Tim Gross says the town needs to spend millions of dollars a year to begin replacing everything except the sewer and water plants themselves. For that he’s proposed a five year sewer and water rate ramp up at the end of which residents will see their utility bills rise quite substantially. Social Security and other retirees are screaming bloody murder. They say they can’t afford it. Although city officials kicked around the idea of means-testing some residents’ incomes to offer them lower rates, it may not be enough because who else wants to see their rates doubled or tripled and then some? The essence of sticker shock.

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Back to the budget. City Councilors Mark Saelens, Ralph Busby and former City Councilor Patricia Patrick-Joling say they have produced a one-year break in the storm. After going over the proposed budget for next fiscal year, they say they have found $1.5 million in city expenses that could be either eliminated or postponed for now; assessing the condition of the lower Big Creek Dam-$350,000; other capital expenses-$200,000, revolving loan services-$180,000, building grounds maintenance and repair-$150,000, building acquisition-$100,000, special account for the city council-$60,000, economic development services-$50,000, other buildings and grounds supplies and maintenance-$50,000, capital and equipment purchases-$50,000. From there the list goes all the way down from the tens of thousands in various expenses to a line item entitled vehicle maintenance-$500.

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Again, $1.5 million. But that’s just a one year savings that would hold off just some of the annual increases in sewer and water rates projected for another four years. July 1st triggers year-two of another 15% rate hike for sewer and water along with other increases for infrastructure and storm drain upgrades.

Having said all that, city Finance Director David Marshall says he will have a report to shed more light on the spending reduction plan produced by Busby, Saelens and Joling. He says, as with most things in life, the devil’s in the details and he warns, there plenty of details. Marshall said although Newport is a relatively small town, it’s budget is no less complex than most other cities, big and small. He said there are always better ways to budget things, as long as everyone sets clear priorities and exercises discipline to stick with them through the fiscal year. But he adds, things come up that can, and will, affect outcomes. Plans are perfect – outcomes seldom are.

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Marshall says he supports the city forming a Budget Task Force of City Councilors and Budget Committee members, along with city staff, to get everyone wrapped around the challenge of how to better plan and carry out the city budget – how it’s set up by state law and how it operates throughout the year. By better understanding how the budget is composed and where the money actually goes, and why, will hopefully shed some light on other funding options for sewer and water system rehabilitation – options that might include creating a city-wide urban renewal district funded by what’s called tax increment financing that would lift the financial burden off low income residents, especially. There are other options to explore as well. There always are.

But having to direct more of the town’s financial resources at a smaller section of the “to do” list requires tough choices. Getting back to basics. Clean water and reliable toilet flushing. It’s getting to be downright fundamental.

The Newport City Budget Committee convenes again tonight, 6pm at City Hall.

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