Chester avoids tax increase

CHESTER -- Chester residents won't see a tax increase and city employees will get a 5 percent raise under the budget passed by the City Council on Thursday night.

One more vote is required to finalize the $5.1 million budget.

The city has been operating on last year's budget because of the lack of updated records -- the result of long-standing financial problems. Over the past year, the city's finances have prompted a number of council debates about how to handle the money woes.

But leaders now believe they are on the path to financial stability. Thursday's vote was 8-0.

"I'm excited," Councilwoman Linda Tinker said of the budget. "It's over."

Councilwoman Susan Kelsey also was pleased with the spending plan.

"I think it's wonderful any time you don't have an increase in taxes," she said.

Here are some highlights from the budget:

• City taxes and fees will not increase.

• City employees will get a 5 percent raise, the first time in four years that they've had a pay increase. The raise takes effect Jan. 1 and does not apply to the mayor and council members.

• Leaders expect the city's utility costs to increase because of higher fuel prices. Insurance costs also are expected to rise. To offset those hikes, leaders allocated less money for supplies, maintenance and travel in all departments.

For example, the mayor and council members' travel budget was reduced by about $2,000.

Mayor Mitch Foster called the budget "very realistic" and "very makeable."

Leaders say the budget, though long overdue, is another step toward overcoming the city's financial struggles over the past year.

Auditors found 26 problems, including missing bank statements and city credit card payments that didn't have matching receipts. The auditing firm suspended its services in March, saying it could not complete its work until the city finished compiling financial records.

In February, the city's finance director, Harriett Tillinger, resigned. That same month, the council voted to ask the state's Budget and Control Board, Attorney General's Office, Ethics Commission, Department of Revenue and State Law Enforcement Division to review the problems listed by the auditors.

In the midst of those issues, the makeup of the council and front office have changed.

Mayor Mitch Foster and Councilman Alan Clack were elected in May. The council hired another finance director in June, and City Administrator David Mobley resigned earlier this month. That position has not been filled.

Despite the turnover, leaders hope to have the city's audits in order by the spring. They've already hired another auditing firm to work on the backlogged financial records.

"I feel wonderful about where we are," Foster said. "I really do."

Council members expect to take a final vote on the budget next month.