City residents will see a property tax hike for the first time in 11 years with the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners’ adoption Monday of a 2018-2019 municipal budget in a 3-2 vote.
Not only are taxes being raised by 10 cents as first proposed — due to action during a budget workshop Monday, two more cents were tacked on, for a total increase of 12 cents. This means that when the new budget goes into effect on July 1, the property tax rate will be 60 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, compared to the present 48.
The package approved also includes a 2-percent increase in water and sewer rates. Those charges were last raised two years ago, by 4 percent.
The last time city property taxes were increased was in 2007, when the rate became 63 cents. It gradually had been reduced by 15 cents in the years since, and Jon Cawley, one of the dissenting board members, predicted Monday that his fellow officials who approved the spending plan will pay a price come election time.
A desire to provide salary increases for members of the Mount Airy Fire Department — led by Commissioner Shirley Brinkley — was the reason for the extra two pennies being added to the 10-cent hike originally proposed when the preliminary budget was presented last month.
“I think it is the right thing to do,” Brinkley said in advocating the salary hike for firefighters, “to keep these guys where they need to be.”
Last year, the only city employees receiving a pay increase were sworn members of the Mount Airy Police Department, partly due to the extra dangers they face on the job. But support was expressed for similar treatment of fire personnel this year since theirs also is a dangerous profession.
And that was manifested Monday.
“These guys need to get their raise,” Brinkley said, which she indicated was necessary to keep them on the job. If anyone needs firemen during an emergency situation, they will appreciate this, Brinkley added. As Monday’s budget discussion was taking place, city fire department members were on the scene of a blaze that struck an old factory building downtown.
The raises were granted to bring Mount Airy firefighters’ pay to the statewide average based on a survey, which will be in addition to a 2-percent across-the-board pay raise for all 172 full-time city employees performing at levels of efficient or above.
Board members were not forced to raise property taxes the extra two cents to supply the total of about $187,000 for the firefighter increases. They also had the option of allocating money from the city’s general fund balance, also known as the reserves or savings, but there was a reluctance to do that.
“You can’t keep taking money out of (the) fund balance,” Commissioner Steve Yokeley said.
Even before Monday’s action, about $1.25 million already was designated from that source to balance the next fiscal year’s budget. As of last June 30, the city’s reserves available for appropriation stood at $10.8 million.
Cawley, who joined Commissioner Jim Armbrister in voting against the general fund budget totaling about $14.4 million, expressed concerns about the pay hike.
He pointed out that with the overall increase, about 76 percent of Mount Airy’s budget will be devoted to personnel costs. Money not only will be needed to fund the raises in 2018-19, but in the future, he said. The city could raise taxes by 25 cents next year, to cover pay and other increases and meet the deficit other than by using fund balance revenues.
Yet this would only cover those expenses for one year.
“That’s unsustainable,” Cawley added of the ongoing salary demands on the budget, saying that his concerns might make him appear to be against municipal workers.
Later in the meeting, Cawley did say that he believed some on the city board were more concerned about looking out for the interests of personnel than the general populace, some of whom have fixed incomes.
“We took an oath for the people of the city — not the employees.”
Cawley also was bothered by the fact that in comparison to personnel, only about 3 percent of the budget will go for capital expenditures, which includes vehicles and other major equipment and building-related needs.
“Show me another city in America that spends 3 percent on capital (needs),” he said.
Cawley further took a swipe at municipal services, which City Manager Barbara Jones has said was one reason a tax increase was needed for next year, in order to maintain services at present levels.
“We have to start looking at city services, or taking our tax rate to 70 cents, or putting our employees on furlough, or something.” He reminded those in the meeting room that Mount Airy privatized its planning-related functions about seven years ago.
In reference to the higher taxation, Cawley is concerned that Mount Airy could be nearing a tipping point, where small businesses are prompted to relocate to just outside its corporate limits to avoid double taxation by the city and county governments.
That is problematic in multiple ways. “It’s another empty building,” Cawley explained. “It’s lost revenue for the city.”
In addition to businesses, residents might be prompted to move out of town, Cawley fears.
Both he and Armbrister expressed dissatisfaction with the budget approval.
“This is hard to accept,” Cawley said, predicting that the public will remember what happened Monday “in the next election.”
Armbrister also criticized the budget decision.
“It doesn’t represent the majority of the citizens, I know that.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.