In the year ahead, Benson residents will pay 68 cents more a month for garbage collection and recycling, but taxes and utility rates will remain the same.
Town commissioners passed the budget last Thursday after an intensive process that included looking at all of the town’s physical assets in person.
The $10 million budget doesn’t include many changes from the current year. The $3.6 million general fund keeps about $438,000 in reserve.
The only increased expense on residents is the monthly garbage-collection fee, which will climb from $16.32 to $17. Town Manager Matt Zapp said that money will help the town’s private hauler cover rising fuel and equipment costs.
The town’s contract with Waste Industries allows the company to raise the monthly rate up to 3 percent annually.
“I made sure we could pay our bill monthly to Waste Industries,” Zapp said.
New expenses this year include a $100,000 deposit on a new fire truck; an older truck is not in compliance with modern safety standards. The town is also investing in new software to keep track of utility payments and expenses.
This year, the town had a $230,000 budget shortfall, which it covered by dipping into savings. Zapp said the town was backed into a corner – investments in new equipment were long overdue. Also, he said, the town was hurt by a mild winter that led to less revenue from the electric system.
“We didn’t have enough sales and revenue to do everything we wanted,” he said.
Next year, Benson leaders will have to take an even harder look at finances, as staffers plan a major overhaul of the water and sewer systems.
The town hopes to reel in new revenue with a tax incentive for hotel development.
The incentive, passed last week, offers a property-tax break for hotel developments of at least 50 rooms, with a minimum investment of $2 million.
In the first year, the tax break is 50 percent. The benefit decreases by 10 percentage points each year – 40 percent the second year, 30 percent the third and so on – until it expires after five years.
Zapp said town merchants are losing business because people can’t find a place to stay. “Folks are leaving Benson every night to stay somewhere else,” he said. “We would prefer that they stay in Benson and spend their money here.”
Joe Stallings, the town’s economic-development director, said hotel rooms are a huge need in Benson. He said executives flying in to visit industrial sites complain about the lack of rooms. Also, families holding weddings at the Preston Woodall House often struggle to find places for guests to stay, he said.
“Whenever you’re having 100, 200 people in town for a wedding, we’re looking for that hotel to help pick up more customers and keep them in town,” Stallings said.
The town has stepped up its development efforts by helping new businesses with the costs of rent, marketing and business-plan development. But Stallings said the lingering effects of the recession have hampered those efforts.
“It’s coming back slowly, but it’s not coming back nearly as quickly as it went away,” he said. “Desire or ability to finance large projects maybe isn’t as big as it used to be.”