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City looks at raising real estate tax rate

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By Tom Wilmoth

The funds the city of Bedford pays to Bedford County for services such as schools and Social Services are going up at "an alarming rate," City Manager Charles Kolakowski stated in a letter to city council about the upcoming city budget.

Because of that, council is considering a 3 cent raise in the real estate tax rate, along with raises to the water and sewer rates (2 percent increase) and solid waste fees (6.7 percent increase). The real estate tax rate is currently 81 cents per $100 of assessed value. A public hearing on the city budget is scheduled for next Tuesday, May 27 at 7:30 p.m. in the city council chambers.

Kolakowski said the growth in the city's tax base is not keeping pace with the increased expenses. The city's contract with Bedford County for school services will increase $410,631 this year, up 6.8 percent from last year. Contracted Social Services costs are up $69,333 (13.7 percent) and the contract for Sheriff's office services is up $41,895 (18.9 percent).

"We're constantly looking at all our services and the way we provide them," Kolakowski said in an interview this week.

Contracted services with the county is one major reason the city is considering reverting to town status. Talks between the city and county continue on that issue and the city has hired a consultant to help it work through the process.

Included in the city's proposed budget for the upcoming year is a 2 percent raise for city employees. The budget also calls for the elimination of four previously budgeted positions and freezes two others. One department head position has been eliminated.

Kolakowski said an aging infrastructure and uncertain costs of wholesale electricity have also added to the challenges of the upcoming budget. The proposed 2008-2009 General Fund budget is set at $17.61 million, a 4 percent decrease from the current budget. The primary reason is a $1.33 million decrease in capital outlay.

He said the budget is "tight and getting tighter."

"At some point we really need to change the way we're providing services," he said. "The expenses are going up in areas beyond our direct control."

Property taxes would account for $4.5 million in revenues, up 4.9 percent from this year and the city expects to receive $5.3 million in revenues for education, up 4.25 percent. Total school expenditures will be $6.45 million for the city next year.

Included in the water and sewer fund proposed increase is funding for sewer line installation in the U.S. 460 west area. Kolakowski said the goal is to be proactive in looking at costs, providing increases in an incremental fashion, rather than all at once.

The city's electric fund budget amounts to $24.01 million, a 2.4 percent increase over the current budget. Power costs are up almost $3.4 million, Kolakowski stated. There are no proposed increases in the electric rates.

"The budget as proposed allows the city to continue to provide our citizens and businesses with an adequate level of municipal services," Kolakowski stated. "The proposed budget provides funding to maintain our core programs and activities."

He added, however, that the city cannot continue to "minimally fund" capital improvements to its utilities and infrastructure. "Serious decisions need to be made in the upcoming years as to the level and type of services provided," he stated.

Among area organizations recommended to receive funding in the budget: Bedford Red Cross, Safe Haven, $15,000; Bedford Area Family YMCA, $5,000; Bedford Chamber of Commerce, $5,000; Bedford Museum, $7,500; Bedford Hospice House, $10,000; Bedford Ride, $15,000; Bedford Habitat for Humanity, $3,000; Bedford Lifesaving and First Aid Crew, $22,000; Central Virginia Agency on Aging, $9,000; Central Va Community Services, $10,967; D-Day Memorial Foundation, $20,000; and Wharton Gardens, $7,500.