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Council Begins Budget Discussions

Town Council members are asked to give early input on fiscal year 2006-07 budget.

With 2006 not far away, Steve Owen, town manager, and town staff have already begun preparations for upcoming fiscal year 2006-07 budget discussions and public hearings.

And although council has yet to see a draft of the projected numbers, Owen is asking for their input.

"We're holding the work session to get some early feedback from the Town Council," he said about a scheduled Dec. 5 meeting. "We're holding it to get them to think about budget priorities and then to get back to us."

Trying something new this year, Owen plans to distribute a draft document to council members for their review. No numbers would be included in the document, but its purpose would be to give council members something to "sink their teeth into," said Owen.

"We really just want to give them a draft so they can give us a list of what is important to them this year," he said.

In previous years Owen has met with the council in a roundtable setting, hoping to get feedback on what members would like to see reflected in the budget. Sometimes this works and sometimes it does not, he said.

This new approach would allow council members some time to think about their priorities and then either discuss it in a roundtable setting, or with Owen directly.

Later in the planning process, Owen will meet with council members one-on-one to discuss additional items or to address specific questions.

IN THE MEANTIME, Owen is working closely with town staff to make sure requested funds for the upcoming year are turned in and that department heads are up to date on the latest data.

The planning process for the upcoming fiscal year's Capital Improvement Program has also begun, said Owen. All proposals are due to the town's department of community development by Jan. 6. Shortly after all budget forms — a list of financial requests from each department for the upcoming year — are due to Owen.

By mid-February Owen anticipates meeting with council members individually to discuss any questions. Around this time the town's annual budget insert for the newspaper will also be completed so residents can get an idea of what the upcoming year's expenses look like, said Owen.

Owen cannot offer any numbers yet for the budget because he is waiting on information, including the cost of health-care insurance this year for town employees, to be announced. He is also waiting for financial information to be released by Fairfax County. This includes the annual assessments for residential areas as well as what the county plans to pay its law enforcement officials this year. The town generally mirrors the county when it comes to paying its law enforcement, said Owen.

And, because it is early in the planning stage, Mayor Michael O'Reilly said it was unclear what certain council members may push for in the upcoming year's budget.

"Of course we're always interested in decreasing taxes and increasing revenue," he said, "but without an idea of overall expenses it's hard to say what is going to happen."

BASED ON PREVIOUS years, O'Reilly and Owen agreed discussions would likely focus on the issue of overcrowding and what the town could do to reduce the number of violations. Another area of interest would be how the town could reduce its real estate tax, if applicable.

"Of course anything that's new or not in the mainstream operation expenditures will need to be looked at very hard," said council member Dennis Husch. "But, at this point without an idea of what revenue looks like and what assessments will be, it's hard to make any decisions on discretionary measures."

Last year Owen presented council with a $37 million proposed budget. Included in that proposal was a one-cent reduction of the real estate tax that would bring the rate down to 27 cents per $100 assessed value.

After deferring multiple public meetings to hear resident comment, council members approved a 3-cent reduction in the real estate tax, making it 25 cents per $100 of assessed value. And, to alleviate the tax burden on Herndon residents due to the large increase in real estate assessments last year, council increased the town's cigarette tax to its maximum amount.

When council finally approved the FY 2005-06 budget, council member Steven Mitchell — who advocated for a shift of the tax burden last year — said he planned to hold council's "feet to the fire" about pursuing potential shifts in the upcoming year's budget. Potential shifts could include increasing the town's hotel occupancy tax and meals tax.

WITH THE UPCOMING council elections in May, Husch suggested this year's budget recommendations by council could also be fueled by political aspirations.

Last year Husch and Ann Null were the only council members to vote against the proposed budget. Opposing his colleagues through a majority of the voting process, after its approval Husch said the budget and what it represented was a "sad day" for the community.

This year, although he could not say which specific items he would like to see moved around, Husch mentioned one budget item he wanted continued into the next fiscal year.

"I would like to see the customer relationship management program followed through," he said.

This program would help improve communication among staff as well as between citizens and town staff. Using the department of Public Works as its guinea pig, the council implemented a small amount of funds for the program last year. Currently if citizens have a complaint about something in their neighborhood, such as a clogged storm drain, a large pothole or other concerns, they call the main town office. Through the suggested program, citizens would call a designated phone number or log onto a Web site and file a complaint. That information would then be placed into a work order queue for the person directly responsible for alleviating the problem, said Husch. Once placed, management can monitor a complaint's status and determine if staff resources are being used efficiently.

The citizen who filed the complaint could also monitor status of the project, said Husch.

"That's an investment I think the town can make to stay up on what's going on in town," he said.

The first public hearing for the proposed budget is scheduled for April, although council will hold preliminary discussions on the CIP and the FY 2006-07 budget at upcoming work sessions.