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The meeting of the Westminster mayor and Common Council last on Sept. 28 began with plenty of smiles, but the mood quickly turned somber as a discussion on budget woes dominated the balance of the evening.

Mayor Kevin Utz conducted a public hearing on the 2009 Comprehensive Plan for Westminster.  Planning director Tom Beyard explained that the comprehensive plan was the culmination of two years of work and that it was due to be adopted by October 1, 2009 in order to conform with Maryland State law.

The development of the plan, which began in earnest in October 2007, was broken into three phases, Beyard said. The first phase was a citizen survey, followed by additional public outreach, followed by the drafting phase.

Beyard said the municipal growth footprint and the planned water and sewer service area had not changed since its boundaries were agreed upon with the county government two years ago. The plan did incorporate for the first time a water resource and municipal growth element.  Both are new mandates from the Maryland General Assembly.

The city was “probably one of the first (municipalities in the state) to submit the water resources element… many municipalities had asked for an extension,” said Beyard.

Council president Damian Halstad remarked, “that the state found it to be an incredibly thorough plan… very detailed…”

Later the council voted to adopt the plan.

Under reports from the mayor and council members, there was much discussion about the success of the recent Fallfest community festival the previous weekend.

Utz and Councilmember Tony Chiavacci also noted how well the recent Westminster Police Department sobriety checkpoint exercise was planned and executed. 

Police Chief Jeff Spaulding noted that although the checkpoint only resulted in taking one driver off the road for being allegedly driving while impaired by alcohol, “the whole point (of the checkpoint) is prevention…  The message will get out… (It’s) a public awareness tool.”

The mood of the council turned noticeably serious as the council president brought up “Budget Amendment No. 1” for adoption.

Utz explained “this reduction in the budget came as a direct result of the governor’s reduction in highway user revenues…”  Other council members noted that the state Board of Public Works recently voted to not send $818,000 in revenue due the city from taxes collected by the state designated for the city’s coffers – in order to balance the state budget.

A press release describing the budget amendment explained that the state reduced the Highway User Revenues from $747,580 to $74,758 and Police Aid from a budgeted $400,000 to $254,826.

Council finance committee chair Dr. Robert Wack described the state cut as “unexpected and unfortunate,” as he went on to further explain that “we will (probably) have to do this again.  We need citizen input as to what we can do without,” said Wack.

This is a “one time reduction,” said Wack of the budget amendment.  “This does not do anything about our structural budget deficit. There will be more reductions. The hole is just getting deeper.  (Increased) taxes are also on the table,” explained a clearly concerned Wack.

Wack and councilman Greg Pecoraro gave an analysis of the steps the city has taken to address the city’s budget woes and what may lie in the future.  He also emphasized the need for public feedback. 

“What is it the citizens want the city to do in the way of services?” asked Pecoraro as it was explained that in order to balance the budget in the future, a reduction in services offered by the city may need to be discussed.

Pecoraro lamented that if the city continues to provide all the services it currently maintains, the future budget challenges mean that “we are going to be able to do none of them well.”

City administrator Marge Wolf said that she expects the state to withhold an additional $329,000 from the city in January.

Among the cuts approved by the Common Council were cancellations of the paving contract, technology purchases and a police vehicle which totaled $267,950 in capital expenditures; diversion of the $100,000 contingency reserve to operating accounts.

Also, the city coverted $215,000 of Union Street property proceeds to operating accounts; reduced departmental operating budgets by $155,086; revised  the take home vehicle policy to institute a partial employee payback of costs by $15,768; and captured $65,000 in savings from reduced tipping fees.

Moving on to brighter topics, city parks and recreation director Ron Schroers talked about Fallfest in the final stages of the meeting.  He also described a series of state grants the city had already received to make some infrastructure improvements.

Public Works director Jeff Glass gave a brief presentation on ongoing efforts to work the Maryland Department of the Environment on future mandated upgrades to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

The city’s roadway overlay and improvements program was also discussed.  As a result of the state cuts, the city had to withdrawal plans to re-surface certain streets in the city.

Wolf tried to put a bright face on a bleak picture at that by remarking that “this is not the best of times, but it doesn’t mean we don’t have good projects underway.”

As if on cue, Lori Graham, representing the business community, gave a report on the “Midnight Madness,” downtown business celebration held in conjunction with Fallfest.  She also gave an update on plans for the upcoming community ‘electric’ Christmas parade.

Also at the meeting, there was a presentation by the Kiwanis Club of Greater Westminster as club vice president Lyndi McNulty unveiled plans for raising money to purchase an electric three-wheeled “T-3 Personal Mobility Vehicle” for the Westminster Police Department.

This was followed by Historical Society of Carroll County presenting to the city with a copy of a new publication authored by Historical Society curator Cathy Baty entitled “Images in America: Westminster.”

The meeting ended on a positive note as Graham and others reminisced about “Fantastic Friday,” a new feature at Fallfest in which special needs children were treated to an afternoon of carnival rides.

“The community has its share of problems but we still come together to do good things,” said Graham.

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