Aberdeen unveiled a proposed $12.4 million operating budget for fiscal year 2013 at Monday night's city council meeting that not only holds the line on taxes, but also cuts spending by a surprising 28 percent.
The budget was one of several important topics – including major development proposals and Aberdeen Mayor Mike Bennett's annual State of the City message – addressed at the regular meeting. But it's the budget proposal that stood out.
"It is about $4 million less than last year," Ruth Elliott, who has been an elected official in Aberdeen for decades, said. "It's really been looked at very closely, and I can't remember in all the years I've been on this council where any municipality had decreased their budget as much as we have this year. So I'm a very happy person in that regard and I congratulate everyone on this council, the mayor and, of course, the folks that work on this budget. Thanks a lot."
The real property tax rate would be unchanged at 68 cents per $100 of assessed value and the personal property tax rate unchanged at $1.70 per $100 of assessed value.
The water use rates would also stay at a minimum $14.50 for the first 3,500 gallons or less and $4.38 for each additional 1,000 gallons. The sewage use rate would be kept at a minimum charge of $17.02 for the first 3,500 gallons or less of metered water, and $4.85 for each additional 1,000 gallons.
In his state of the city address and budget message, Bennett said he had thought Aberdeen would be "crawling out of the recession" by now and back to funding major projects.
Property tax assessments, however, are down by $109 million, he said, meaning tax revenue will be down as well.
"Despite these stormy financial skies, Aberdeen is in solid shape," he reassured, pointing out the city's AA bond rating, giving Aberdeen the ability to lower its debt service costs and redirect the savings toward other city problems.
"I am deeply humbled that the citizens of this city have re-elected me to the first four-year terms in Aberdeen," he said. Bennett, who has served since 2007, won re-election to the mayor's office in November.
"We value your trust and will work diligently to make Aberdeen a better place to live, work and shop," he said on behalf of the council. "We have ambitious plans and we will need the support of the Aberdeen community to bring these plans to fruition."
City manager Doug Miller pointed out that a cooperative health insurance plan – used by Maryland municipalities such as Port Deposit, Bowie, College Park, Rockville and Westminster - would save Aberdeen $158,000 this year. The plan is run by the Local Government Insurance Trust and The Benecon Group Inc.
"We pay over $1 million a year in health insurance," he noted.
Only one person spoke during the budget hearing. Karen Heavey requested clarification on some items such as the trash tipping fee and said she was disappointed the budget was not made fully available during the previous council meeting.
In other business at Monday's Aberdeen City Council meeting:
• The developer of the planned Colony at Beards Hill in Aberdeen wants the site rezoned to build upscale, market-rate apartment buildings, city officials were told Monday.
The project was one of several discussed during a lengthy city council meeting that also included a hearing on the proposed 2013 city budget and the mayor's state of the city address.
Joe Snee, an attorney representing the developer of Colony at Beards Hill, told members of the city council the buildings will be three or four stories high, similar to a project called The Summit at Owings Mills, in Baltimore County.
The Colony at Beards Hill Road would be built on 17.9 acres off of Beards Hill Road.
"Our goal is to attract at market rate prices the technicians and employees that work at Aberdeen Proving Ground," Snee said.
The proposed rezoning was one of two such requests made before the city council Monday.
The second asked to change a total of roughly 21 acres at 1104 Old Philadelphia Road from M1 (light industrial) to B3 (highway commercial) zoning.
Jane Wright, of North East, said the site was farmed by her great-uncle. She said the property is one of the first properties seen upon entering Aberdeen via Route 40 from the west and her family is asking for it to be re-zoned to create a better looking entrance from that side.
"It's a nice, high piece of property that overlooks Route 40," she said, making reference to Mayor Mike Bennett's state of the city message: "We think it'll make the city a better place to live, work and shop."
• Several residents again spoke against the proposed 38-acre annexation at 830 Gilbert Road.
Bobbi Randles, of Locksley Manor Drive, said she is opposed to the annexation because Aberdeen should work in conjunction with the county.
She pointed out Eagle's Rest, saying the development caused flooding and standing water problems constantly on Aldino-Stepney Road after storm water management was put in.
"There's a disconnect," she said. "We need to be conscious and plan very responsibly and plan in coordination with the county."
Robert Price, of Gilbert Road, congratulated the mayor on his state of the city address and said the council has spent a lot of time considering zoning issues.
He said annexing the Gilbert Road property will force county officials to go back because it's a substantially different zoning.
"I think that's very wrong," Price said. "They put a lot of work, a lot of effort into what they did there."
Heavey, a planning commission member, said she was speaking as a private resident.
She said she has lived in the city for 33 years, works at Aberdeen Proving Ground and sees a lot of new housing plans going forward.
"Not many of us live in the city but I chose to live here," she said. "I think we have plenty going on in the city. I would like to see things on the other side of [I-]95 stay rural, in concert with what the county has planned for this area, so I am against this annexation."
Councilwoman Sandra Landbeck said the plan is in line with the mayor's initiative to have the city become a sustainable community, and the council will make sure any plan it considers meets the criteria for a sustainable community.
"I think there are some sound zoning principles for annexation and I promise we will follow those," she said. "It must be an asset to the city, not for the developer."
"I know the citizens have asked as we develop that we hold to a ratio of 75 percent residential and 25 percent commercial," she added.
• Also during the meeting, the council approved resolutions supporting transit-oriented development by the train station and the Villages at Highland Commons being built by The Shelter Group.
Bennett said the Aberdeen Police Department is working to become certified by CALEA, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc., which would make it the only department in northeastern Maryland to have such certification.
Bennett also mentioned the enhanced nutrient removal project at the wastewater treatment plant and a new attempt to start a bimonthly newsletter.
Also at Monday's Aberdeen City Council meeting:
• The council introduced an amendment to the city code that would require a fire hydrant to be operated only by an authorized employee, fire department member or someone in possession of a city permit.
• The council recognized Winifred "Wink" Jonas with a proclamation for being the first mathematician at Aberdeen Proving Ground to work with the world's first practical computer. Bennett pointed out that Jonas, 87, was really one of the first computers, as the machine's operators were initially called.
• Public works director Matt Lapinsky reminded residents they must call 410-297-4259 to have bulk items picked up, as it is not the city's responsibility to drive around and pick up items left on the side of the road. "It is a very pricey commodity that we give to citizens as part of their taxes," he said.
• Police Chief Henry Trabert announced the department has a number of community events coming up. On May 10, there will be a town hall meeting for the Winston Choice community, held at city hall from 7 to 9 p.m. On May 24, police will participate in Education Day at Ripken Stadium and Cal Sr.'s Yard for elementary schools of Harford County, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.