Here are the big three highlights from this week's meeting of the Bennington City Council:
New police chief: The mayor appointed Drew Hilscher as the new police chief, and the Council unanimously voted to approve the appointment. Chief Hilscher has served the Bennington Police Department in a part-time capacity since 2015. He's served the Fremont Police Department as Narcotics Investigator since 2012. He also has prior experience and training through the Boys Town Police Department and the Nemaha County Sheriff's Department.
The mayor made this appointment after our search committee's most recent vetting process resulted in no hire. Chief Hilscher has many of the qualifications we had been seeking in a candidate, including extensive law enforcement training and experience, and he is close to finishing a degree in criminal justice. He comes to the job with a growth mindset, and he will have the city's support in pursuing additional training specific to his role as chief.
The timeline is still being hammered out, and we anticipate continued support from the Sheriff's Office during this transition. I'm looking forward to seeing Chief Hilscher out in the community. If you see him, make sure to tell him congratulations!
New proposed development: We heard from the city engineer and the development team for the proposed Kempten Creek subdivision, which would be located south of Bennington Road at Johns-Bohn Park. The proposal calls for 181 single-family lots and 44 townhome lots on the hill to the south, while the lower ground near the road would become parkland. Streets would connect to Bennington Road and to 156th Street. The development would include a mix of housing styles and prices, with homes to the south resembling those in Anchor Point, townhomes located near the base of the hill, and mid-sized single-family homes in-between.
The Planning Commission had recommended approval. On Monday night, no one spoke in opposition, and the City Council gave its preliminary approval, with all voting in favor. I like the variety of housing that would be available, and the parkland will provide exciting opportunities for youth sports clubs.
That said, both the mayor and I voiced concerns about traffic and pedestrian safety on Bennington Road, and the engineers are considering ways to prevent drivers from using the new neighborhood as a shortcut. The final plan will likely come back to the City Council in October. We'll be working to get these concerns addressed between now and then.
City budget update: We got an update on the city's work-in-progress budget for 2019-2020, which begins October 1. Right now, core personnel and other operating expenses are budgeted to grow about 7 percent, and property and sales tax revenues are projected to grow at a similar rate. If you add construction costs, the total budget looks significantly larger next year as a result of the 156th Street project beginning in the summer. Fortunately state and federal funds will cover 80 percent of that project's cost.
Using rough estimates for revenue, right now the budget is $298,000 in the black. This is good, but we will have to get more solid estimates of revenue in the coming weeks.
On Monday night, the mayor suggested that if this healthy budget picture turns out to be real, he will consider proposing a property tax cut. I am not so sure about this potential course of action. Back in February, when we looked at the city's street projects for the coming six years, I figured the projected annual expenses and found that they will require future increases in our streets budget. Before considering a property tax cut, I would like to see either:
- More confirmation that this healthy revenue picture is real and not just temporary. After all, the cut will be hard to reverse if we have to fix more streets than we can afford.
- Growth in other revenue sources to make up the difference. I would like to see less reliance on property taxes. Projected sales tax growth is promising. And as I've written before, ASIP fees could help pay for streets that are carrying more traffic from new developments.
The next steps in the budget process are a special meeting in late August and a public hearing at the City Council's regular meeting September 9.
The full minutes from Monday evening's meeting will be posted here. As always, please contact me if you have any questions, concerns, or ideas.
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