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By Amber Marrafirstname.lastname@example.org
STRASBURG -- A preliminary fiscal 2012 budget that features no tax or fee increases and a pay increase for Strasburg's employees was previewed for the Town Council on Monday night amid a torrent of questions and comments.
Acting Town Manager Judson Rex and Finance Director Dottie Mullins presented an overview of the budget proposal a month or two ahead of schedule compared to previous years. Rex said that the council generally doesn't get a first glance at the budget until February or March.
Initially, the town staff recommended that based on the preliminary numbers derived from the current fiscal 2011 budget and the proposed expenses for next year that a 3 percent salary increase for town employees should be considered. Town employees have not seen a salary increase since fiscal 2009.
Based on the preliminary budget, it was also recommended that taxes and fees associated with the general fund remain unchanged.
Due to planned payment of debt stemming from building the town's new water treatment plant, which will amount to about $450,000 per year, water rates are expected to increase by 21 percent next year, which is down from the previously estimated 40 percent increase.
No jump in sewer rates or hook-up fees was recommended, however.
The council voted to increase both water and sewer rates by 10 percent last year.
Not all of these suggestions sat well with members of the panel.
Councilman Don Le Vine took issue with the fact that there were no plans to increase the hook-up fees, and said that putting off sewer rate increases was only prepping residents for a "tidal wave" of looming utility rate hikes.
"We don't want to saddle our citizens with 100 percent of the burden, but we also don't want to price ourselves out of the market, so to speak," said Councilman Richard Orndorff, jr.
Rex said he would look into comparing what other localities charge for hook-up fees, as well as the potential of phasing in sewer rate increases in increments and report back to the council.
Councilman Scott Terndrup had issues with the fact that the preliminary budget did not address some of the smaller capital project the town has lined up, like the improvements to Queen Street.
"All I see here is another year where nothing gets done," he said.
Though most of the council could not commit to salary increases to town employees at this point in the budget process, there were also concerns of the method in which residents are billed for reconnection of utilities when service has been cut off due to non-payment.
"The $50 reconnection fee is absolutely hurting families," said Councilwoman Sarah Mauck. "I want to know if there is a way some of them can be helped ... $43,000 is a lot for collect from penalties for one town."
Rex said he would also look into changing the reconnection policy to give delinquent residents a chance to have their first or second offenses waived, along with checking into other issues raised by the council.