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Westminster council approves budget after lengthy process

The Westminster Common Council voted unanimously Monday night, June 8 to approve a budget for the city following a season of much back-and-forth over the city’s fitness center and municipal pool.

The approved budget contains no increase in real property tax. The costs from water and sewer will rise, as part of the staggered increase plan the city council voted for in May 2018. Water rates would increase 3.5% and sewer rates would increase 5%. The rate changes take effect July 1.

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The budget documents and the meeting’s agenda can be found at westminstermd.gov/AgendaCenter. The meeting, which was held over video chat, can be watched on Facebook at the city’s official page, “Westminster, Maryland.”

City Administrator Barbara Matthews told the council, "I think as the group knows, we’ve covered a lot of ground since this [budget] ordinance was introduced on April 27.” That was the date city staff first presented a draft of the budget to the council. She gave a quick overview of recent changes. A more detailed list begins on page 148 of the information packet for the meeting available on the city website.

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Since the last meeting, she said that the State Highway Administration had alerted the city staff that Highway User Revenue (HUR) for the city would be cut by $89,000 for FY21. These funds are collected by the state from gas tax and motor vehicle fees. Municipalities use them for road repairs and other transportation projects. Following the last recession, the Maryland General Assembly cut the amount that would go to local governments by more than 96% in order to balance the state budget. Funds had only started to flow back into local municipalities in the past handful of years. This will be reflected in the city’s annual paving project for FY21.

Westminster also received funding for a Community Parks and Playgrounds grant from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources for $75,000 to install a climbing structure at the Tahoma Farm Boulder Park.

Several of the changes made to this year’s budget came as a result of intense public interest in the city-operated Family Fitness Center on Longwell Avenue.

At the start of the budget season, the center was on the chopping block after running at a deficit for several years. More than half of members were residents outside city limits who weren’t contributing to the taxes that went toward the deficit, the city found.

After public outcry in favor of keeping the gym and childcare center operational, the city tasked Director of Recreation and Parks Abby Gruber and her team with revamping the fitness center to get rid of the budget shortfall. Their plan includes raising member rates for the center, staying closed during some of the less-popular hours and reducing employee costs.

As of Tuesday, the center was projected at a deficit of about $19,000 as compared to $200-300,000 that the city had previously predicted for the upcoming year. That number could be affected by different factors like membership retention rates and the benefits that employees elect for.

Some of the funds that might have gone to fitness center deficit will now go toward staff salary and benefits adjustments. The city had a compensation and classification study done in financial year 2018 for the first time in 12 years. The group hired to conduct the study found that Westminster staff salaries were below average int eh market. The FY21 budget will be the third phase of putting recommended changes in place.

This year’s budget season also pushed the council to make decisions about how much they want to spend on repairs and possible upgrades to the municipal pool. A 2019 audit identified that the pool was leaking in addition to other issues. The auditor proposed different levels of repair or renovation and their costs.

At the start of the budget season, there was a $2,995,500 placeholder for Pool Complex improvements, representing the most the city would possibly spend.

At Monday night’s meeting, the council introduced an ordinance for allowing $1.225 million in bond financing for project costs. The city will hold a public hearing, to be scheduled, before voting.

The city’s bond counsel said they had until July 23 to reduce the amount if desired. The bond is set for 20 years.

To submit comments or testimony to the public record, contact City Clerk Shannon Visocsky at Comments@westgov.com.

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