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City tackles debt in budget proposal
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MONROE - The city will pay off $480,000 in debt - a move that will drive the tax rate up about 6 percent - under the proposed 2015 budget Monroe's Finance and Taxation Committee is sending to the Common Council.

The committee voted 4-1 Wednesday to approve the budget and set a public hearing for 6 p.m. Nov. 11, before the regular Common Council meeting. Committee member Louis Armstrong voted against the motion made by chairman Reid Stangel and seconded by Brooke Bauman.

The tax levy for the City of Monroe in the 2015 proposed budget is $7.12 million, up $475,000 from 2014. This represents a 6.7 percent increase.

According to "very rough" estimates provided by City Administrator Phil Rath, which include the tax increment districts, the tax rate in 2015 from the City of Monroe would increase 5.9 percent from 2014, up 61 cents to $10.99 per $1,000 of equalized property value, but overall city property taxes would decrease by 76 cents. Overall property taxes for Monroe residents, which include the State of Wisconsin, Green County, City of Monroe, Monroe School District and Blackhawk Technical College, would drop from $29.40 per $1,000 to $28.64.

In the 2015 proposed budget, general fund revenues increased by $403,000, from $10.45 million in 2014 to $10.85 million. Total expenses increased by $537,000 from 2014, an increase of 5.1 percent from $10.45 million in 2014 to $10.98 million. The net difference of revenues and expenses in the 2015 budget represents a deficit of $134,000.

The projected 2016 budget, which is not being sent to council for approval, shows a surplus of $36,000.

The committee opted to use $480,000 to pay off two fire engines purchased earlier this year. The fire engines cost the city $753,000. Bauman said a move to pay off the fire engines "just makes financial sense" as paying the $480,000 would save the city $85,000 in payments and interest per year for six years.

"It's like having a loan, and your payments being $85,000 a year, and we're just getting rid of that $85,000 a year by paying that off up front.

"Personally, at home, if you have debt, you want to try to pay that down like a credit card bill - you always try to pay more whenever you can to get rid of that debt over the years," she said. "There's people who have 30-year mortgages that like to pay them in 15 years, and I think this (move) just makes sense because it ends up saving the city and its residents more money."

Armstrong said he would prefer to "look deeper to find savings" and trim from the budget rather than raise the levy, and that he ultimately prefers a zero increase.

"I'm not completely opposed to it," he said of paying the debt service. "I'd like to see the debt service go down, too, but through a different route."

The committee asked the handful of taxpayers in attendance to share their thoughts on raising the tax levy to address the debt service. Monroe Police Chief Fred Kelley, who attended Wednesday's finance meeting as a spectator, told the committee that "using the levy just makes logical sense" and would help the city "get ahead." He added that it would be nice to "have a plan that actually pays off something."

Rath said he believes paying off the fire trucks puts the city "in a better financial position" going forward. The actual amount saved will be closer to $86,000, which can be used towards other operations or for reducing future tax levies, he said.

"It really allows us to maintain the same level of services that the citizens are accustomed to. It gives us that same financial flexibility for now, and in the future."