By Timothy Cox
Celina voters likely will be asked to approve a new tax issue during the November election, possibly a levy earmarked for street improvement.
Members of Celina City Council's personnel and finance committee asked city administration officials to draft some sort of tax issue for consideration by the full council. They asked that the issue have a narrow focus so voters can easily understand how their tax money would be spent.
Fixing the city's streets was the single issue mentioned by most council members as the most pressing matter during a committee meeting Wednesday.
Voters rejected a proposed 0.5 percent income levy last November, a tax that would have been used to repair streets and help fund other city operations.
Council member Rick Bachelor suggested voters did not fully understand the failed tax issue. "It has to be well-defined, not so broad and spread out people can't understand it," Bachelor said.
The decision to consider a new tax issue came after an hourlong discussion on the 2006 budget that ended with a lot of talk about city streets. Council member Christopher Mohler asked if the city's aggressive pursuit of grant money will be enough to get the street program back where it should be.
Council member Angie King noted the city cannot even come up with local matching money for grant programs.
Safety-Service Director Jeff Hazel said grants cannot feasibly solve the city street woes alone.
"They're not going to put a funnel into Celina and give us all the money," Hazel said.
It is not clear whether city administration will ask for a five- or 10-year tax issue or if an income tax again will be the preferred method to raise more revenue. Council members offered no input on those issues.
The 2006 budget projections discussed at the meeting show a general fund deficit of $400,000 at the end of 2006 with all existing cash reserves depleted. If state legislators continue with plans to chop some local funding from the state budget, that deficit balloons to more than $500,000.
The committee agreed to send the preliminary budget to the full council. It then will be presented to the county budget commission.
Auditor Pat Smith said early budget projections always look worse than reality, but still said city officials will feel the pinch when they sit down to decide actual spending for next year.
"When we do the appropriations, we have to live within our means," Smith said.
The proposed budget holds the line on most spending but some line items were increased so that the entire budget shows about $500,000 more in expenses next year than this year.
The extra money in the preliminary budget includes an increase of more than $100,000 for streets. That money is necessary to do some engineering work on some major street projects planned to be funded with grant money in later years, officials said. City officials also plan to accelerate debt payments on a fire truck and industrial park land. The parks department also would require at least an extra $30,000 in general fund revenue to maintain its existing levels of service, they said.