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Cottage Grove preliminary budget headed for approval

The city of Cottage Grove last week presented to city commissions and residents its tentative budget for fiscal year 2014, a plan that proposes $14.3 million in general fund spending, including transfers, and a 3.7 percent increase in the total property tax levy.

"We pride ourselves on keeping expenditures low so that we don't have to raise the levy," City Finance Director Robin Roland said. "We ask for the amount of money in the levy that we need to run city operations. This is the first year in several that we are asking to increase it a small amount."

Roland said the city kept costs down during different financial climates when other expenses were on the rise, and now needs to catch up.

General fund spending is proposed to increase by about 1 percent, with the general fund portion of the property tax levy increasing by about 1 percent as well.

As the housing market in Cottage Grove continues to show signs of progress, Roland said the valuation of homes is increasing, with residential properties in the county seeing an average 3.5 percent increase in value and properties within city limits seeing a 4.4 percent increase on average. With the rise in value, Roland added that property owners can anticipate an $18 increase in the city portion of their property taxes for 2014.

Durings its last budget workshop session, the City Council identified more than $80,000 in proposed cuts, specifically to the public works and parks and recreation department.

The council decided to hold off on buying a new paver until 2015 and cut a public works intern position, which cost $15,000 annually. Those dollars are proposed to be reallocated in the budget for a public works analyst position.

The parks and recreation department, meanwhile, saw a $62,000 reduction in funds for the Emerald Ash Borer treatment regimen. With 2014 being a non-injection year, Parks and Recreation Director Zac Dockter said the tree cutting process would not be impacted.

The public safety department, while it did not see any cuts, will hire new firefighters and emergency service personnel in January 2014, rather than July 2014, which added back $20,000 to the budget.

Mayor Myron Bailey said he was most in favor moving up the start date for the public safety personnel, saying it will allow for the department to better transition from a paramedic-focused organization to fire-focused.

"I'm very happy we've decided to get the paramedics and firefighters going earlier," he said. "The department has been running ragged for a while."

An aspect that is new to the budget this year is a dedicated funding source for the parks and recreation department. With nearly 20 cellphone towers scattered throughout Cottage Grove, the city makes more than $350,000 a year in revenue leasing them to companies. The money was previously being directed to the water fund.

"We're going to dedicate it to the parks and recreation department for more capital things," Bailey said. "Generally what happens is we have to dedicate funds from the general fund to fund improvements to the parks. There has never been a revenue stream coming in that they can count on. This way they can have a steady funding source that doesn't have a levy impact.

"We're in a very good shape financially and the road ahead looks very positive for us," Bailey added.

The City Council is expected to approve the preliminary budget during its regular meeting Sept. 4.