Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 28, 2014

City may not be able to use all of road millage windfall

By BRIAN McGILLIVARY bmcgillivary@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — City officials face an unusual conundrum as they begin work on their budget for the next fiscal year:

Too much money.

They also have conflicting ideas on what to do with the cash.

The city expects to collect roughly $750,000 from a new county road millage that city voters overwhelmingly supported last November. City Manager Jered Ottenwess will ask commissioners for direction on how they want to use that money for the fiscal year that begins July 1 when they meet Monday at 7 p.m. in commission chambers.

The road millage money alone won’t rebuild many miles of street, but by matching it with other funding sources the city can double or even quadruple project size, officials said. The millage provides about a 60 percent increase in what the commission currently allocates for street improvements from the general fund.

That may strain what the city can pull off during construction season.

“There are only so many projects we can do in one year with existing staff and we are already pushing the limit,” Ottenwess said.

Commissioners have several options, Ottenwess said. They can hire more staff or a private engineering firm to oversee projects, or reduce what in recent years has been the city’s $1.25 million general fund contribution to road city projects.

Mayor Michael Estes said the city can’t spend much more than $1.6 million on roads. He wants commissioners to consider another idea -- tax relief.

“I think we are primed to give city residents some type of rebate on their taxes,” Estes said. “I’d like to give $2 million to $3 million back to help offset the rate increases for sewer and electric ... that will have to happen.”

City Commissioner Ross Richardson doesn’t agree. He believes the city needs to try and spend all $2 million on streets and sidewalks infrastructure.

“Citizens of Traverse City overwhelmingly supported this millage and they didn’t support it so we could divert it somewhere else,” Richardson said. “Maybe we have to store it up until we can use it, but there are plenty of things that need to be done.”

Commissioner Gary Howe said the commission needs to honor voters’ desire to see value added to the streets.

“I think there is a limit of capacity of doing projects and getting them done,” Howe said. “I want to know how much could we realistically spend on sidewalks and not overextend ourselves too much.”

Ottenwess said he’ll also seek other general direction from commissioners as he drafts his first budget for Traverse City. He’ll begin the budget process with a goal of maintaining the status quo, but will ask commissioners if there are any city services they want beefed up.

The budget discussion should give city residents an idea of which direction commissioners plan to take following years of austerity measures and an improving economy. Commissioners will need to address whether they intend to continue past failed efforts to trim their hefty fund balance or take a more aggressive stance to reduce the surplus.

“The city has been in a great spot for the last decade financially,” Howe said. “It’s not like we have room to be reckless, but we are healthy as far as financials.”