Tax hike might not pay firefighter salaries

If a proposed sales tax increase passes, the Bloomfield City Council will decide how the additional revenue will be spent

Hannah Grover

BLOOMFIELD — While the campaign for a sales tax increase in the city of Bloomfield has centered around paying firefighter salaries, how the new revenue would be spent if the tax is approved has not been decided.

Bloomfield firefighter Tony Herrera checks on a fire engine March 4 at the Bloomfield Fire Department.

During a City Council meeting Tuesday, Mayor Scott Eckstein said if the tax increase passes, the revenue generated would go into the general fund, and the City Council would decide how the additional money would be spent. He said each elected official likely has a different opinion about where the city should spend the additional tax revenue.

"There was no guarantee by the council that we'd get all the funding," Bloomfield Fire Chief George Duncan said during the council meeting.

A special election on Tuesday, Aug. 16 will determine whether the 1/4 of 1 percent gross receipts tax increase will go into effect.

When reached by phone Wednesday afternoon, City Manager Eric Strahl said the City Council will likely not decide how to divide the additional revenue until March 2017. That is because the tax hike would go into effect Jan. 1, and there is a two-month lag before the state returns the revenue to the city.

"We've got plenty of areas where we could use it," Councilor Curtis Lynch said when reached by phone Wednesday afternoon.

Lynch said if the tax is approved, how the revenue is spent will be determined by what the city's priorities are next year. He said the city's priorities could be emergency services such as the police department or areas such as streets.

"We've got that hole in the budget that obviously needs to be filled," Eckstein said Friday about how the additional revenue could be used.

The city cut about $1.3 million from its budget this year, and Eckstein said it has cut back as far as it can. The budget cuts include a 3.46 percent pay cut for all city employees except for firefighters, who are currently paid through a federal grant.

Assistant Fire Chief John Mohler said the department doesn't know how it will pay the firefighters until the tax money is returned to the city if the increase is approved. He said part of the uncertainty stems from the fact that the department does not know if the council will approve keeping all seven firefighters.

The department has about $70,000 set aside that it will use to pay the firefighters for as long as it can after the federal grant money runs out in October, Mohler said. He said if the fire department keeps all seven firefighters, that $70,000 would only last about two months.

The department does not know if the council will approve funding all seven positions or if the tax will even provide the $450,000 a year needed to keep paying the salaries of the seven firefighters, he said.

"Nobody knows for sure, based on the economy, how much (the tax is) going to generate," Strahl said.

During the Tuesday meeting, Bloomfield resident Ira Roark expressed concerns that the tax will not generate enough money to pay the salaries of the seven firefighters.

“What is your contingency plan if this tax passes and yet we can’t afford to pay these firefighters?” Roark asked Duncan.

Duncan told Roark the tax increase is the only option that is available.

Councilor DeLaws Lindsay said he won't know how the revenue from the tax hike will be best spent until he knows how much is generated.

"Obviously, we need it throughout the city," Lindsay said when reached by phone Thursday morning.

Councilor Elwin Roark, who cast the only dissenting vote against holding the election, remains vocally opposed to the tax increase. As part of his opposition, he has displayed signs that read, “Taxed enough. Vote no. Aug.16th.” Roark could not be reached for comment on how the additional revenue should be spent if the tax increase passes.

During the council meeting, he cited the city’s financial situation as a reason why he is against the tax increase. He said it does not make sense to cut the pay of city employees while hiring seven full-time firefighters. The pay cuts, which were approved during Tuesday's meeting, will go into effect Sunday.

He urged residents in the audience to learn about the issues.

“Please get yourself educated,” he said. “Seek this education.”

He also urged residents to attend council meetings.

“If you want to be informed, be here in these council chambers while it’s going on,” Roark said.

Councilor Matt Pennington was not at Tuesday's meeting and could not be reached for comment.

Hannah Grover covers Aztec and Bloomfield, as well as general news, for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652.