Mayor Neil: “Essential services a priority” as museum supporters protest budget cuts

As the City of La Porte City enters the final stages of adopting a budget for the 2017 fiscal year, city leaders will be asked to reconsider the level of funding proposed for the FFA Historical & Ag Museum.
On February 22, 2016, the City Council of La Porte City will conduct a public hearing on the proposed 2017 fiscal year budget. The meeting will be held at the La Porte City Community Center to accommodate area residents who wish to attend. Preliminary budget documents indicate a proposed tax levy rate of 14.99574, a 1.05% increase over 2016, which will generate just over $950,000 in revenue. As one of several sources the City uses to fund its more than $4.5 million budget, property taxes account for approximately 25% of the City’s total revenue.
In La Porte City, budget hearings typically lack drama, as attendance at such meetings has traditionally been sparse. Proponents of the La Porte City FFA Historical & Ag Museum, who are protesting the proposed cuts made to their budget, have indicated that will not be the case this year.
Last month, the City’s department heads met with members of the City Council to discuss the draft budgets they had submitted for the fiscal year that runs from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017. Sherry Sheffler, President of the Museum Board of Directors, noted that of the nearly $30,000 the museum requested from the City’s General Fund, the City Council is choosing to allocate only $16,485. Much of that difference can be attributed to wages.
Museum Director Jan Erdahl recalled the work that has been done over the past 10-12 years that resulted in the opening of the new museum on Main Street, as well as the restoration of the building that houses the firehouse and jail. Most recently, the historic log cabin on Chestnut Street has been restored and moved to a new location. In each of these cases, she explained, the funding was secured through grants and fundraising efforts.
“We can’t maintain both buildings and all the events that go on here without some staff,” Sheffler said. While the museum has many volunteers who are eager to help, a director is still needed to organize the many programs and displays the facility maintains, she said.
For Mayor David Neil, the choice on how to spend taxpayer dollars is a matter of priorities. The City has committed around $200,000 in matching funds to participate in the Main Street Façade program and the Wolf Creek Rehabilitation project.
“There’s only so much money,” he said.
“When you take into account they only had 200 people pay to go through the museum, $600 in total income from tours tells me there’s not a lot of interest.”
“I met with the President of the Museum a year ago and told her some of this was coming. It shouldn’t be a surprise,” he added.
Mayor Neil noted the City has made significant strides in streamlining operations in order to reduce expenses, citing recent changes made to the process of issuing and enforcing building permits and outsourcing waste management services, which has allowed the Public Works Department to address other infrastructure needs. The funding of essential services takes priority over recreational services which, he explained, “are on the bottom.”
“Our tax base is being eroded with the change in the commercial rollback [resulting in fewer tax dollars for the City]. On top of that, our tax rate is higher than surrounding communities,” he stated.
“Plus, they [the museum] have a $270,000 endowment sitting there when the rest of the City is struggling,” he added.
“It’s a wonderful museum and the City is not walking away from it,” Neil said, saying the City is committed to taking care of the buildings so the Museum can take care of the programs that are offered there.
The public hearing addressing La Porte City’s FY2017 budget is designed to provide area residents with the opportunity to offer feedback. Copies of the proposed budget, which was published in the February 10, 2016 edition of The Progress Review, are available at Hawkins Memorial Library, 208 Main Street and at City Hall, 202 Main Street.