Following tense discussion, Merriam adopts 2021 budget and keeps mill levy rate the same

Merriam offers several grant opportunities, including an Exterior Home Improvement Grant and a Sustainability Grant for residents as well as a Historic Downtown Exterior Grant for qualified businesses. Those grants are becoming available for 2021. Above, downtown Merriam. File photo.

The Merriam City Council last week adopted its 2021 budget with no mill levy rate change, despite a tense back-and-forth between councilmembers about keeping the rate the same.

Although the city council previously addressed its consensus to keep the mill levy rate flat, Councilmember David Neal — who was absent at the last city council meeting when the discussion happened — said it would be “a good will gesture” to reduce the mill levy rate for 2021. Councilmember Chris Evans Hands said she felt the mill levy rate no longer needed to be discussed after a three hour budget work session and the previous city council discussion.

“We came to the consensus we are to hold steady,” Hands said. “It is an unfortunate thing for some people, but it is also a fortunate thing for some people. I feel like we’re going in circles, I’m not happy about that.”

Neal apologized several times for missing the last city council meeting and the corresponding mill levy rate discussion.

Neal suggested reducing the mill to a flat 27, opposed to 27.558, to help out residents and small business owners who might be struggling during COVID-19. The city would then have to reduce the budget by “approximately a couple hundred thousand dollars,” he said.

“It seems like an appropriate thing to do right now because of the number of people who are looking at reduced income, that’s real liquid funding, and the value of their homes are something they can’t necessarily tap to pay [property taxes],” Neal said.

Mayor Ken Sissom said rolling back the mill now would potentially cause a future mill levy rate increase. He also said it wouldn’t be an equitable solution because some residents’ property valuations may not change, and the city’s revenues are down about 30% as a result of the pandemic.

Councilmemeber Whitney Yadrich said, as someone who has suffered from COVID-19 impacts and whose property taxes are going to go up, she understands if the mill rate is lowered, then city services will suffer. Yadrich said lowering the levy is “like throwing a dart at two different targets, we don’t know where the bullseye is.”

The city council unanimously approved the 2021 budget.

2021 budget highlights: capital improvements and new grants

Merriam’s 2021 budget includes a mill levy rate of 27.558, which accounts for 24% of Merriam residents’ total property tax bill, according to a Merriam budget fact sheet. The city will have 14% of its general fund expenditures to spend toward capital improvements and equipment, including a $5 million capital improvement plan.

The capital improvement plan will include two street projects: one on E. Frontage Road from 67th Street to 75th Street, and another on Goodman Street from 55th Street to 57th Terrace.

Merriam will also add two new grant programs for residents and business owners, the historic downtown exterior grant and the residential sustainability grant. The two new grants will be in conjunction with the city’s three existing grant programs for exterior home improvement, neighborhood islands and block parties.

Businesses eligible for the downtown exterior grant, with $50,000 worth of funding, fall between Turkey Creek and BNSF (south of Johnson Drive to north of 57th Street). Business owners can receive a 20% reimbursement — on a grant between $1,000 and $5,000 —for exterior improvements, such as flood-proofing.

One historic downtown grant is available per property every five years and per property owner per year.

The residential sustainability grant, with $20,000 worth of funding, is a  20% reimbursement for residents installing energy saving systems. These systems include solar, wind, geothermal, insulation and high efficiency doors or windows.

Residents can combine the sustainability grant with the exterior home improvement grant. The sustainability grant has a minimum of $500 and a maximum of $2,500.