The City Council's 3-2 vote for a zero-increase tax levy surprised the mayor and others.
For the Farmington City Council, it came down to this: trying to buy a $587,000 firetruck without cutting more city jobs or benefits, or reducing taxes.
At the 11th hour, after months of budget massaging, the council tried to have their truck and cut taxes, too.
It voted 3-2 for a zero-increase tax levy this month. The flat levy, which means cutting nearly $153,000 from the planned 2013 budget, is expected to get final approval at the council's Monday meeting.
The council had spent nine months honing a $10.7 million budget supported by a property tax levy of about $8.7 million, a 1.8 percent increase, or nearly $153,000 more than the 2012 levy. The 2012 levy was the same as in 2011.
"I personally, as a council member, feel there is more we could do," Julie May said after seconding a zero-increase motion made by Jason Bartholomay at the Dec. 3 council meeting.
Noting the council has often talked about supporting the business sector, May added: "We can't be hypocrites here and say we care and then have tax increases which we know, we all admit, hit that sector much harder."
Mayor Todd Larson said he was surprised when the council roll was called and Terry Donnelly cast the deciding third vote in favor, leaving Larson and Christy Jo Fogarty on the losing end of the tally.
The surprise vote sent Administrator Dave McKnight back to the cutting board, with the possibility of reducing staff costs. At a workshop last week, McKnight laid possible trims before the council.
He suggested they include canceling Fire Department plans to buy a $50,000 portable generator and a $45,000 rescue truck, using $30,000 from the recent sale of the former senior center across from City Hall and saving $24,000 from a staff reorganization, Larson said. The remaining funds to cover the reduced levy and balance the budget could come from a reserve fund.
Larson noted the council has trimmed about a dozen jobs in the past four years. "Our employees are working really hard and frankly, they are stretched a little thin right now. You get too thin and something breaks," he said.
At the Dec. 3 meeting, Fogarty noted the $153,000 levy trim will not stop businesses from getting tax increases that result mainly because of the Legislature's change last year to shift some of the tax burden from homeowners to businesses.
"Basically, we said we want a new firetruck but we don't want to pay for it," Fogarty said. "We are going to make the city administrator find other cuts to pay for it."
The truck, to be delivered in January, will cost $587,000. Larson noted that the proposed $153,000 levy increase included $120,000 of debt payment for the new firetruck.
Bartholomay, also surprised by Donnelly's vote, said before the meeting that he and May had voiced concerns about a tax levy increase because businesses are bearing the brunt of higher taxes. Donnelly didn't return a reporter's call.
Bartholomay said he opposed the council's decision to pay a larger share of the salaries of two school liaison officers the school board has cut from their budget. He thought an early retirement package for a few officers would save money. "It's not right to increase taxes until the council hammers out a strategic plan showing what we want to do, and then to formulate a budget," Bartholomay said.
Larson said he liked the proposed budget before trims, adding: "I think we took a step backwards here." He said the city is in a financial bind not because of the city payroll, but because of the big debt load accumulated in the past dozen years when the city was growing fast.
"We built a police station, a new fire station, a central maintenance facility and a new City Hall, all within about 10 years," Larson said.
Jim Adams 952-746-3283