Real estate tax rate won't increase in city

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By Tom Wilmoth

Following some funding cuts to outside agencies, Bedford City Council passed a budget last week that eliminated a proposed increase to the real estate tax rate.

Council was considering raising the real estate tax rate by 3 cents, but the approved budget keeps the rate at 81 cents per $100 of valuation. Most outside agencies, however, will see their funding cut by 50 percent. Also eliminated from the budget was a proposed $1 increase to the city refuse collection fee.

The changes to the budget proposal came after a June 5 meeting by the council's finance committee to review the budget.

Other cuts were also made to the proposed budget, including eliminating grounds maintenance contracts totaling $43,705 and eliminating $26,400 funding for temporary employees for cemeteries. Cutting the outside agency budgets saved $55,000 from the proposed budget.

The only outside agencies that didn't have their proposed budgets cut by 50 percent were the Bedford Hospice House and the Bedford Museum. The Hospice House will receive $10,000 as proposed and the Museum $7,500. Agencies which will have their budget funds cut include: Bedford Red Cross, Safe Haven, from $15,000 to $7,500; Bedford Area Family YMCA, from $5,000 to $2,500; Bedford Chamber of Commerce, from $5,000 to $2,500; Bedford Ride, from $15,000 to $7,500; Bedford Habitat for Humanity, from $3,000 to $1,500; Bedford Lifesaving and First Aid Crew, from $22,000 to $11,000; Central Virginia Agency on Aging, from $9,000 to $4,500; Central Va Community Services, from $10,967 to $5,483.50; D-Day Memorial Foundation, from $20,000 to $10,000; and Wharton Gardens, from $7,500 to $3,750.

Vice Mayor Robert Wandrei suggested having the entire budgets for Safe Haven and Habitat for Humanity cut, stating that while the programs are good, they serve a limited number of residents in the city.

Wandrei said the Safe Haven program was originally funded in a grant, but now is being funded by the city. He said funding programs that benefit just one segment of city residents is "a misuse of funds."

He added that the developer of the Raintree property where Safe Haven is located doesn't even contribute any money for the program.

"I encourage everybody to contribute to whatever charity they want," he said.

Wandrei said city staff should be commended for reducing spending during a year in which contracted items with Bedford County increased by more than $500,000. He said had spending cuts not been made the real estate tax rate could have jumped as much as 13 cents.

Council member Mary Flood, spoke against cutting out all of the funding for Safe Haven or Habitat. "We are trying to help people who are trying to help themselves," she said. In the end, she said the programs help those citizens become more productive citizens.

Only Wandrei and Council member Jeffrey Hubbard voted for eliminating the funding for Safe Haven and Habitat. Hubbard, in voting for the amendment to the budget proposal, said he had a philosophical problem with the city picking and choosing which charities it supports.

Council then voted unanimously to approve the budget with its original changes, including the 50 percent funding cuts for outside agencies and the elimination of an increase in the real estate tax rate.

Council member James Vest said city staff had done a good job in preparing the budget. "I know it was a difficult job," he said. "I took no pleasure in having to reduce the funding for outside agencies."

City officials have said the growth in the city's tax base is not keeping pace with 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).

Included in the city's 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. The 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.

The city's electric fund budget amounts to $24.01 million, a 2.4 percent increase over the current budget.