Local News

North Platte’s early-summer tussles over the city’s fiscal structure and Iron Eagle Golf Course reasserted themselves Tuesday night as the City Council took its first extended look at the city’s 2019-20 budget.

A 4½-hour-long work session yielded little criticism of specific items in the draft $146.8 million budget, which would fall by 2.4% overall from last year but raise the city’s general-fund property tax request by 1.47%.

Council members will hold a formal public hearing on a final budget draft at their regular Sept. 3 meeting, with a vote planned at a special meeting Sept. 5.

The draft budget includes two projected cash transfers the council discussed but tabled in June: $550,000 to replenish past general-fund advances from Community Development Block Grant funds and $3.25 million in surplus electric fees to retire Iron Eagle’s chronic operating deficit.

It does not transfer Iron Eagle spending from the “other funds” category into the general fund, a step City Administrator Jim Hawks said would require a separate council resolution.

He called the spending draft “a bare-bones budget” but “a workable budget” that generally limited its spending boosts to higher insurance and supply costs.

It sets aside only about $300,000 for other tax-supported initiatives, which Hawks recommended the council use for a potential 2% employee pay raise and replacement of two police cars and nine onboard police video cameras.

“As things escalate in price and budget revenues get tighter and tighter, there’s fewer needs we can meet on the capital side,” Hawks told council members.

He estimated the city would have a $1.95 million cash balance when the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1. Once again, however, the 2019-20 budget would lack a formal cash reserve — a step the city’s auditing firm once again recommended in May.

Hawks said establishing a reserve, not to mention finding money to catch up with long-delayed street and park repairs, will be difficult without “additional revenue streams” like the half-cent infrastructure sales tax voters rejected in November.

“We budget to spend every dollar we have,” he told the council. But if an emergency arises, “we’d have to look to other sources to finance things we didn’t plan on.”

Hawks said the budget’s 1.47% increase in general-fund property tax dollars would capture what little growth is expected in the city’s total taxable value. Lincoln County must certify final local government valuations by Aug. 20.

General-fund spending would rise by 2.95% over 2018-19, while Municipal Light & Water’s separate “enterprise fund” budget would grow by 2.48%. Combined budgets for the city’s other funds, however, would fall by 11.35%.

Councilman Ed Rieker declared he would oppose any growth in either general-fund spending or tax requests. He cited a Platte Institute survey finding that 70% of its Lincoln County respondents want further property tax restrictions.

“I just don’t think it’s proper for us as city government to be asking for more money from the people who are already on a lower (average) wage scale” than similar-sized cities, Rieker said.

While other council members withheld comment on the overall draft budget, their divisions over Iron Eagle’s future resurfaced when Hawks’ budget review reached the long-troubled golf course.

Councilman Ty Lucas, joined by Rieker, renewed his call for a separate council work session to decide whether the city should keep Iron Eagle afloat.

Even with the would-be $3.25 million transfer from ML&W surpluses, Lucas said, the 2019-20 budget still would use $116,746 in keno funds to cover Iron Eagle’s annual costs.

“I’m thrilled to see the development proposal last night,” he said, referring to Chief Development Inc.’s three-pronged development proposal Monday night that would include a 200-unit-plus “senior living” complex next to Iron Eagle.

But constituents continue to keep his phone ringing about the course’s future, Lucas added. “I’m more passionate about resolving this issue than (about) what the solution is.”

Rieker agreed. “It’s become a real point of division in this community, and I don’t think that’s good for our town,” he said.

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