Bellevue officials have wrestled with a $5 million budget deficit for months, and tonight they have to decide what should be cut and who should be taxed.
“It is hard times for all of us,” Mayor Rita Sanders said.
A budget that City Administrator Dan Berlowitz proposed for next year contains a property tax increase of 3½ cents per $100 of valuation, along with steep cuts to the Fire and Police Departments and to services such as snow removal.
The City Council is scheduled to vote tonight on that budget and on any changes. Council members have indicated that they would like to see the public safety cuts restored.
“We don't feel comfortable with what was suggested, and we're going to make some changes,” Councilman Steve Knutson said.
Council President Don Preister proposed a string of alternative cuts, including putting off projects such as the American Heroes Park trails construction and fixing the sidewalk in front of the library. “These additional cuts are painful cuts,” he said.
But they would free up money to avoid Berlowitz's proposal to close one fire station each day.
Preister also floated the idea of a restaurant tax, modeled after the one Omaha adopted a few years ago.
Such a tax would bring in about $1 million a year, which is equal to about 4 cents of property tax, Councilwoman Kathy Saniuk said.
Councilwoman Carol Blood also suggested cutting a little more than $100,000 from the legal budget. That would mean the city would stop hiring outside lawyers to help with labor negotiations.
Blood said she'd like to see the city eventually hire its own human resources director rather than use the city attorney's firm for those questions.
Bellevue had staved off cuts in two previous years through first spending its entire cash reserves and then selling property.
But this year there were no one-time funds, and property values declined.
Meanwhile, Fire Chief Perry Guido said the city had to hire its first full-time firefighters, or fire service would suffer.
All those factors led to the $5 million deficit this year and tough decisions for the council.
“We're doing the very best we can,” Saniuk said.
Berlowitz presented his proposal to balance the budget at a public hearing last week.
Bellevue residents packed into City Council chambers to share their thoughts. Many people said they wanted to see Berlowitz's police and fire cuts restored. And the restaurant tax was generally panned, though a few people said they'd welcome higher taxes for the same services.
Bellevue residents will have another chance to speak about the budget tonight before the council takes its vote.
The meeting is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. at Bellevue City Hall. The budget would go into effect Oct. 1.
“No matter what we do, somebody isn't going to like it,” Preister said.