One would think a proposed 10-cent property tax hike is not a popular move, and that was evidenced Thursday night when most of the speakers at a public hearing in Mount Airy were decidedly against the increase.
“I think citizens need to know this will be only the beginning,” warned Tom Koch, one of nine citizens who addressed the tax-hike issue during a meeting of the city board of commissioners.
Koch, a former member of the Mount Airy Board of Education, expressed concern during the hearing about growing municipal expenditures to redevelop the former Spencer’s industrial property downtown, citing a figure of more than $800,000 spent to date.
He predicted that the continuation of this project might require more tax increases later, on top of the one already proposed for the 2018-2019 fiscal year that begins on July 1. It calls for the property tax rate to jump from 48 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to 58 cents, an increase of about 20 percent.
If taxpayers do support such increases, “just be aware of what you’re getting into,” Koch added.
John Pritchard, a frequent critic of city budgetary policies, continued in that vein during Thursday night’s hearing when he questioned the need for the proposed tax increase.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” he said of the proposal. “Our problem is not that we don’t have enough tax revenue coming in, we can’t control our spending.”
Pritchard suggested that Mount Airy’s financial situation reflects a fundamental problem. “There’s something wrong, and we need to find out what it is before we start raising taxes.”
He said that according to a state government website, Mount Airy already is taxing property owners at a hefty rate. “The state average is 44 cents and we’re at 48 right now,” Pritchard mentioned.
Apart from challenging the proposed increase at hand, he believes the city’s financial well-being has been misrepresented. Even when taxes have been slashed in recent years, Mount Airy has been able to add to its reserve fund, or “surplus.”
“Yet we still behave as if we’re broke, and we’re not broke,” Pritchard said.
The tax hike, if approved, will be the first increase in Mount Airy in 11 years and generate additional revenues of $1.09 million.
City Manager Barbara Jones, who presented the preliminary budget last month, said this is needed to maintain municipal services at their present levels. She further is proposing that about $1.25 million be taken from the city’s general fund balance, or reserves, for that need.
Gene Clark, another citizen, also questioned the mixed signals sent by city government regarding its financial health.
Officials often are reluctant to allocate money to existing local entities such as the regional museum and arts council, but are willing to spend untold sums on efforts such as one to bring a Barter Theatre expansion to town.
Clark, a local businessman, said municipal leaders should evaluate such costs.
“I think we really need to step back and take a look,” the hearing speaker said. “We really need to start looking at our expenses.”
Clark compared spending related to the Barter project to a “hole.”
“We can’t stop digging because we think we’re going to find gold at the bottom of that hole.”
But Clark believes the bottom has dropped out in the minds of some citizens.
“There’s a silent majority in this town and they are fed up,” he told city officials.
“If I were you, I’d take a long look at what you’re spending — because it affects everybody in the city.”
Paul Eich, another regular critic of municipal budgetary operations, said he was “discouraged” about the proposed tax increase. He also took aim at the stated need to maintain services, saying the costs of those services should be analyzed and adjustments made to provide them more cheaply.
In addition, Eich leveled criticism toward continuing to spend money on what he called the “Barter dead-end.”
Another city election is on the horizon in 2019 and Eich predicted that many citizens will be working hard to unseat board members who perpetuate this trend including higher taxes.
“I know you’ll ignore it, but I still thank you for listening,” Eich concluded his remarks to board members.
Other speakers Thursday night were clearly in favor of the 10-cent tax increase, including Matt Edwards, executive director of Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.
However, for the purposes of Thursday night’s public hearing, Edwards said he was wearing his “personal hat” rather than his professional one.
“I support the tax increase,” Edwards said.
“What we’re really looking at is not a tax increase, but a rollback to where we were before,” he pointed out.
Mount Airy taxpayers last experienced a property tax hike in 2007. But since 2008, taxes gradually have been cut by the commissioners by a total of 15 cents to the present 48 cents.
The museum director also used the occasion of the public hearing to lobby for a substantial increase in city funding for that facility, mainly to cover security upgrades at the museum.
Under the proposed budget, special city appropriations to outside agencies are listed at $215,150, including Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, the Surry Arts Council, Mount Airy Rescue Squad, the Northwestern Regional Library system and city schools.
That would keep museum funding at the present $10,000 level it has been allocated in recent years.
Blanton Youell, another hearing speaker, also was clearly in favor of the tax hike during the public hearing, along with expressing support for local facilities such as the museum as well as the Barter Theatre expansion.
The proposed budget additionally seeks a 2-percent increase in water and sewer rates.
No action was taken on the spending plan Thursday night, with a vote to occur later this month after the city commissioners discuss its implications in depth.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.