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Harter holds down tax rate on first budget

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Harter
La Crosse Mayor Matt Harter translated his campaign promises to paper in his first executive budget, keeping the property tax levy flat and reducing the city's tax rate. (Tribune file photo)

La Crosse Mayor Matt Harter translated his campaign promises to paper in his first executive budget, keeping the property tax levy flat and reducing the city's tax rate.

The annual operating budget has widely been viewed as the mayor's first test since taking office in April.

He was confronted with significant reductions in state aid and investment earnings, coupled with unavoidable increases in contributions to health care and the employee retirement system.

The $72,440,164 Harter proposes spending in 2010 is about $3.7 million more than 2009, but he suggests offsetting the increase by shifting $1 million from the city's surplus account and asking department heads to hold spending to 2009 levels.

His budget doesn't allow for any new positions or new equipment. And while the budget funds positions held open under the mayor's hiring freeze, Harter said that doesn't guarantee they'll be filled.

The result is an estimated tax rate of $12.25 per $1,000 of assessed valuation - about 11 cents lower than the 2009 rate of $12.36. If adopted, taxes on a $120,000 house in La Crosse would decrease from $1,483 a year to $1,469.

"It's not much, but it is sending out that message to the community that we're doing what

we can here," Harter said in

See Harter, B2

introducing his budget to the city's Finance and Personnel Committee on Tuesday.

When asked by the committee to speak candidly on the potential effects to city services, some department heads said it's a reality they might not be able to live with.

City Attorney Stephen Matty said his department doesn't have the resources needed to handle contracts while protecting the city's interests. Public Works Director Dale Hexom said the budget restraints could affect snow removal from city streets and sidewalks.

As expected, some council members had concerns about not levying to the state's 3 percent cap as La Crosse historically had done. It remains to be seen if the council challenges Harter's policy in the coming weeks of budget hearings.

"I was led to believe that was wonderful the year you did it, but it sort of kicked you in the teeth the next year," said council member Dick Swantz, echoing former Mayor Mark Johnsrud's outlook that coming in under the state levy limit digs the city into a hole in future budgets.

Levying the maximum amount would add $101.50 to the average home's tax bill.

That's more than in past years, when the increase would have been tempered by a 5 percent to 8 percent jump in equalized property value. But real estate values gained just 1.2 percent this year.

"The policy of raising to the maximum even if you don't need it, I don't think that's good policy. I think we should be raising it at what we actually need," Harter countered.

Harter didn't leave any room in the budget for wage and benefit increases from upcoming union contract negotiations, saying department heads will have to work those into their budgets.

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