About 100 Bellevue residents packed the City Council chambers Sept. 3 to speak on a proposed restaurant tax, cuts in city services, property tax increases, and the need to preserve strong police and fire departments.
The special session of the Bellevue City Council was called to take public testimony concerning the 2013-15 budget, and in particular the $68 million budget for the coming fiscal year.
The two-year budget anticipated raising the property tax levy 3.5 cents to 59 cents per $100 of assessed valuation for the 2013-14 fiscal year, and another cent – reaching 60 cents – for the 2014-15 fiscal year.
It also proposed cuts to city services and staff, which in combination with the property tax increase would cover an anticipated $5 million shortfall for the 2013-14 fiscal year.
A new 2.5 percent restaurant tax, proposed by City Councilman Don Preister, was expected to bring in about $1 million a year, which would be a significant step toward covering the deficit.
While most of the proposals were adjusted at Monday night’s City Council meeting, those decisions were heavily influenced by testimony heard at the Sept. 3 special session.
The restaurant task found little favor among residents, many of whom said they would prefer to pay higher property taxes to protect police and fire services, snow removal and other public safety services.
Several speakers also called for elimination of the assistant city administrator position, which was created last year and costs the city $77,500 annually in salary and benefits.
David Anson, who lives on Bellevue Boulevard, said he would accept higher taxes in order to maintain police, fire, and emergency services.
“The City of Bellevue is more than a tax district,” he said. “It is a community, a large group of people dependent on services and leadership.”
The proposed 4.5 cents tax increase would equate to an additional $4 or $5 a month in property taxes for the average Bellevue family, he said.
“Compare that to your cellphone,” he said.
Most of the 16 residents who commented expressed a willingness to accept higher taxes in order to maintain services, but most were determined to steer clear of a restaurant tax.
That determination proved unaffected by a warning from Council member Kathy Saniuk that the $1 million the restaurant tax was expected to raise represents 4 cents on the property tax levy and could reduce that levy by a similar amount.
Kathy Siefken, executive director of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association, said that property taxes are a fairer method of gathering revenue than levying an “occupation tax” on a specific industry such as restaurants.
Bellevue voters last fall rejected increasing the city sales tax from 1.5 cents to 2 cents, she said, and would be unlikely to look favorably on a restaurant tax.
She said the Legislature’s tax modernization committee is currently considering tax reform for next year’s session of the Legislature and has asked municipalities to delay establishing new occupation taxes until the study is complete.
Siefken said the chairman of the committee, State Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, has said municipalities that enact occupation taxes before the committee issues its report should expect to see them rescinded.
“He specifically is opposed to any attempt to bypass a vote of the people,” she said.
Michael Wills, who lives on Harrison Street, urged council members to look harder for spending cuts, warned against the tendency of city departments to grow too large and warned that a restaurant tax would be a “disaster” for the city.
He said Omaha’s imposition of a similar tax causes him to avoid eating in that city.
“It will be disastrous for this city,” he said. “I will not eat in the City of Omaha, but I eat here.”
Steve Draper, who lives in the Green Meadows subdivision, was skeptical a restaurant tax imposed during hard times would be lifted in good times.
“I’m opposed to the restaurant tax,” he said. “We all know that once taxes get put in place they’re almost impossible to remove.”
Not all public comment was opposed to the restaurant tax.
Lisa Swanson, who narrowly lost election to the City Council last fall, said 58 percent of respondents to a recent city survey said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to maintain or improve city services.
“Yes, please, tax me,” she said. “I’m not complaining about that. As my business expenses increase and inflation takes a hit I have to increase my prices.”
Swanson opposed those calling for elimination of the assistant city administrator position, which she said is necessary for a city the size of Bellevue.
“A staff ranging from 200 to 300 people in a city of 52,000 needs a strong administrative department,” she said.
Mayor Rita Sanders said City Council members would do their best to pull the city through hard times.
“These are hard times,” she said, “for all of us – in our homes and in our business. We all have to do more with less.”
She assured residents that city department heads had given their budgets a close review and that council members had spent “countless hours” poring over the budget.
“It’s tough times for all of us, but we will continue listening to the public, and I pray we will do the best in the end,” she said.