City budget to include tax hike?

By Tom Joyce - [email protected]

It has been 10 years since property taxes were increased in Mount Airy, but there are indications that streak could be broken soon.

“If we’re going to continue with all the services that we’ve been providing and continue to give pay increases, I don’t see any other choice,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said of that prospect in discussing the city’s financial outlook Tuesday.

The preliminary budget for 2017-2018 will be presented Thursday during a meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners which begins at 7 p.m.

City property owners are now taxed at the rate of 48 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

But the possibility of staying at that level could come down to the cold realities of dollars and cents.

After an annual planning meeting in March to identify priorities, the commissioners directed City Manager Barbara Jones to prepare a 2017-2018 general fund budget capped at $12 million.

In comparison, the one for the present (2016-2017) fiscal year exceeds $14 million — with the $12 million mandate representing an attempt to match spending with $11.2 million in projected revenues, including property taxes.

Another goal identified was raising the starting pay for police from $29,000 annually to $35,000 to reduce ongoing vacancies, with support also voiced for hiking salaries of other sworn officers due to the dangers they face compared to other municipal personnel.

Yet when Jones presented an array of options for meeting these objectives during an April 26 budget update meeting, commissioners seemed unwilling to take the steps to accomplish this.

Among those steps were cutting nine city jobs in departments other than police, ending special appropriations to outside agencies such as the Surry Arts Council, eliminating plans to hire a city marketing director and decreasing overtime pay by $100,000, which would reduce the presence of police and other personnel for special events such as the Autumn Leaves Festival.

Cawley acknowledged Tuesday that the goal of a balanced budget and $12 million spending plan had gone astray.

“In view of the last workshop we had, it seemed like there may have been some kind of understanding that it will be different from that,” he said of the April 26 meeting.

“I expect her (Jones) to bring back some kind of budget that is going to be over our revenues,” Cawley predicted Tuesday, “and leave it to us (commissioners) to figure out how to handle the difference.”

There also is pressure from Commissioner Steve Yokeley and others to increase pay for workers on the 170-member city payroll in addition to police.

Such additions would greatly exceed a $12 million budget, and with revenues projected at only $11.2 million Mount Airy officials have only two choices for balancing it — relying on city reserve funds, or raising property taxes.

“We can’t keep dipping into the fund balance to sustain our day-to-day operations,” Cawley said Tuesday regarding the reserves.

A pattern of cuts

That leaves property taxes.

The last city tax hike occurred in 2007 ahead of the 2007-2008 fiscal year, when Mount Airy officials then in office voted to increase the rate from 60 to 63 cents. One reason cited for this was lost revenue from industrial closings.

Since then, taxes gradually have been reduced to the present 48-cent rate.

Cawley said the stage could be set for vigorous philosophical debate among the commissioners on both revenues and expenditures, and whether there is political will for raising taxes in a municipal election year, leading up to the budget adoption in June.

Seats now held by three city officials, including Cawley’s, are at stake.

“I hope the public speaks to the issues about a tax increase,” he said in soliciting citizen opinion to help guide the board in its decision-making.

Cawley is hoping the proposed municipal budget presented Thursday night is “fairly close” to the $12 million cap, “so it will not take a complete reworking,” he said.

“Like everybody else, we’ve got to find a way to live within our means.”

The board is expected to vote Thursday night to set a public hearing on the budget for June 1.

Rezoning hearing

In another matter Thursday, a public hearing is scheduled on a rezoning request involving property at 207 E. Oak St., including a large building located behind The Mount Airy News.

Local businessman Ben Webb, in association with an entity known as Araneum, LLC, which actually owns the property, has asked that the zoning of the .673-acre site be changed from B-1 (Central Business) to B-2 (General Business).

The property is near the building housing Old North State Winery, which Webb also is associated with in addition to the Fish Hippie clothing business.

“As far as I understand, Ben is looking to consolidate all Fish Hippie and ONS operations under one roof,” city Planning Director Andy Goodall explained.

“The zone change was necessary to allow for the warehousing aspect of the business,” Goodall added.

Adjoining property owners have been notified of the proposed rezoning, but no opposition has emerged, including during a recent meeting of the Mount Airy Planning Board, an advisory group to the commissioners on such matters.

It voted 5-0 to recommend the rezoning, which the commissioners are slated to vote on Thursday night after the public hearing.

Other business

Among other agenda items Thursday night, the commissioners are scheduled to:

• Address water issues and improvements on Market Street, where city officials held a meeting on May 8 to see conditions there.

• Discuss a request regarding the “Whittling Wall” project.

• Go into closed session to discuss matters involving economic development and acquisition of property.

By Tom Joyce

[email protected]

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

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