After running a campaign promising new leadership. Mayor-Elect Dave Neil is ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work. Neil, whose mayoral duties begin January 1, 2014, is focused on making the changes he believes are necessary to address concerns about La Porte City’s infrastructure, specifically city streets in need of repair and improving the appearance of the downtown district on Main Street. He acknowledges some of his proposed changes will not be popular.
As promised prior to being elected last month, Neil has begun the work of scrutinizing the city’s current budget, which funds city services through June 30, 2014. While the City has begun the process of building a budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1, 2014, Neil wants changes in funding to be made sooner, rather than later.
“I come with a budget perspective. We’ve only got so many dollars, so we’ve got to look at best practices to find a way to stretch those dollars,” he said.
“If we can save a dollar in January, we ought to save a dollar in January. Just because you’ve appropriated the money doesn’t mean that money can’t be moved around,” he added.
Whatever savings the new mayor can find in the city’s budget will be diverted to repairing the approximately 20 blocks of streets he’s identified that are in poor or very poor condition. It’s a job, he recognizes, that cannot be accomplished in one year.
“Every dollar we can save somewhere else will go toward that effort. That’s what I’ll be doing,” he stated.
Where does Neil expect to find the most dollars to support his plan?
“Right now, the police department,” he said, citing public safety services as accounting for approximately 40% of La Porte City’s budget.
Neil’s plan for the police department begins with reducing the number of personnel the city employs and utilizing on-call service. His review of neighboring communities has shown that other cities in the area use fewer police officers than La Porte City.
“We’ll have 24 hour service, with a portion of it on an on-call basis,” he said.
Neil’s review of city expenditures as they compare to La Porte City’s neighbors will not be limited to just public safety.
“I’m going to be scouring other cities for best practices, whether that be law enforcement, whether that be street work, whether that be building and inspections,” he stated.
Before any road repairs are initiated, Neil will look to the City Council to conduct a study to identify and prioritize streets in need of repair. He said it will also be important to determine what level of repair each street needs, as that can impact the overall cost of a repair job, particularly if the work cannot be done in-house by the La Porte City Public Works Dept.
Another issue affecting La Porte City streets are roads identified as farm to market. Neil would like to see farm traffic adhere to those streets, which he identified as Highway 218, Eighth Street, Cedar Street and Main Street to Six Corners, when coming into La Porte City from the east.
“I’m going to be asking farmers, this will be controversial also, to use the farm to market roads. Fourth Street is not a farm to market road. Neither is Third Street or Bishop. Those three streets get a lot of truck and tractor trailer traffic,” he said.
In addition to improving the condition of city streets, the new mayor wants to invest in the appearance of the Main Street business district. He believes such an investment is important in the effort to increase property values. He has asked MSA Engineers to prepare illustrations of how a renovated downtown could appear. He’d like those illustrations to be ready by the 2014 Festival of Trails Celebration, “so people can come together around a plan.”
Neil is also concerned about legislation passed last year that will reduce the amount of property taxes the City can collect from certain commercial properties. While the State of Iowa has set aside money to help cities recoup revenue it knows municipalities will lose, it is widely believed those funds will fall short of making up the difference. If estimates are correct, in eight years, the shortfall in La Porte City could be as much as $100,000. With fewer available resources on the horizon, Neil said the City needs a plan for how to do as much in the way of services with less money.
“We need to be looking around to our neighbors to see if they’ve found a better way of doing things,” he said.
As for gauging the amount of public support for the changes he is advocating, Neil replied, “I think you need to start with the [City] Council.”
“I’m always interested in community and citizen input,” he added, noting his intention to establish mayor’s office hours every Monday afternoon, in addition to also being available by appointment.
“There’s still a lot of things I’ve got to learn and I plan on learning them.”