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Strasburg to drop sewer rate, freeze taxes

By Alex Bridges

STRASBURG -- Town leaders may balance the budget and cut residents a break on their sewer bills starting in July.

Town Council had its first look at the proposed budget for fiscal 2015 at a work session Monday. The budget as proposed calls for no increases in the tax rates on vehicles and homes, nor on water rates. The town can lower the sewer rates by 10 percent due to a grant of $5.7 million on the wastewater treatment plant upgrade project that reduces Strasburg's annual loan payment.

Mayor Timothy Taylor and council members lauded town staff for making the budget-creation process go smoother each year. Taylor also pointed out one of the highlights of the proposed budget.

"What's so nice about this one, for the first time in -- how long has it been we're actually reducing a rate?" Taylor asked.

Town Manager Judson Rex presented his proposed budget that covers spending in the general fund as well as water and sewer services. The budget also includes spending on one-time needs such as new vehicles for the police and public works departments.

Public Works Director Jay McKinley said his department needs to replace several vehicles while Police Chief Tim Sutherly said his agency has two vehicles. The town plans to pay for the vehicles over several years. Councilman John Hall Jr. questioned that method, saying that this requires the town to also pay interest.

The proposed budget reflects the second year of the town's career development plan. However, Rex does not recommend any salary increases in the budget.

The budget assumes increases in revenue from several sources. Finance Director Dottie Mullins explained that the town's annexation of the North Shenandoah Industrial and Business Park should result in a 14 percent increase in the machinery and tools tax. The town also can expect more revenue in real estate tax from the park. Mullins said the town should realize a 7 percent increase in sales tax.

Council members debated the town's reserves in each of its three funds and whether or not to use some of the money for immediate needs. The town has $1.74 million in its water fund -- about $1 million more than the recommended amount it should keep in reserves. Some council members suggested that the town use or at least borrow some money from reserves in the water fund to buy new vehicles. Other council members disagreed with using money from the reserves, citing the possibility of needing the funds for emergencies.

Capital spending in the budget includes the Downtown Streetscape Enhancement Project, the U.S. 11 Pedestrian Trail, loan payments on new Public Works Department facility, water and sewer line replacement, the master development plan for the industrial park and any other unforeseen needs.

Town officials also plan to lower the connection or availability fees to $8,000 for water and sewer. The town currently charges a developer $11,950 and $11,825 to connect to water and sewer, respectively. The lower fees would remain in effect for two fiscal years. Council would then revisit the fees when it begins its work on the fiscal 2017 budget in the spring of 2016.

Council members also debated the merits of the practice of the town borrowing money from its reserves to pay for one-time expenses with the promise of repaying that debt. Terndrup explained that this approach allows for the town to pay for items without borrowing money from outside sources and, in several years, the reserves are replenished.

The proposed budget also includes contributions to outside organizations. The local Chamber of Commerce would receive $8,000, as it had in the current fiscal budget. The library asked for $15,000 and the town would give $17,000. The Strasburg Museum requested $13,000 and the town would provide $14,500. Councilwoman Jocelyn Vena asked why the town provides money to the Chamber of Commerce. Other council members said the money helps the Chamber cover the cost to put on events such as Mayfest. The town began contributing to the Chamber in 2001. Mullins explained that at that time the Chamber faced financial hardship. The Chamber at that time promoted the town as a tourist stop, according to Councilwoman Sarah Mauck.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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