Citizens tell council to hold down taxes

Published 7:45 pm Tuesday, October 7, 2008

FRANKLIN—Citizens urged the City Council on Monday night to hold the line on property taxes in a challenging economy.

Also at the public forum on the city’s fiscal 2009 property tax rate, the chairman of the Franklin School Board and a school administrator pleaded for more education funds.

For their part, City Council members said they face some tough decisions before setting the tax rate at an Oct. 27 meeting.

Several citizens called for a tax rate of 77 cents per $100 of assessed value – a rate that, in combination with a 16.78 percent increase in assessed property values, would produce the same revenue as this year’s tax rate of 90 cents.

The City Council last month advertised its intention to set a tax rate of 85 cents, though council members said they might settle on a lower rate. A rate of 82 cents would be required to fund the fiscal 2009 budget as currently written.

“My encouragement to you is to bite the bullet, suck it up, and get to a 79- or 80-cent tax rate,” retiree Everett Williams told the council.

Williams, in a lengthy prepared presentation, outlined ominous trends in the local, state and national economies while encouraging the city to tax and spend conservatively.

“These are extraordinary times requiring extraordinary actions,” he told council members repeatedly.

“I know it’s going to hurt,” he said of spending cuts, “but the rest of us out there are hurting.”

Another retiree, Mary Turner, said high property taxes are especially hard on senior citizens and others who live on fixed incomes.

“When you have to go into your savings to pay your taxes,” she said, “it really hurts.”

Dr. Robert T. Edwards, a retired dentist, implored council members to “wake up and realize that there can be no business as usual in government.”

Mayor Jim Councill said an 85-cent rate would give the city a cushion to assist the school division, which faces a reduction in state funding due to enrollment losses.

School board Chairman Bill Scarboro and Director of Instruction Bev Rabil asked council members to consider the schools.

“While you have a lot to deliberate about, one of the things I would ask is that you give much thought to the financial needs of the school system and our commitment to our young people and the programs that will serve them,” Rabil said.

Councill said the school board is “very likely to have to make some midyear cuts.”

“If they can’t find a way to fund their shortfall,” he said, “they may have to terminate teachers who are teaching currently, go to larger class sizes or cut programs.

“It is easy to sit in the audience and say, ‘Well, just cut back.’ The hardest part is for us to figure out how wisely to do that. Do we want to cut an entire department in city? Do we want to cut 10 percent of personnel in every department? What does that do to the level of services? Do we ask each employee to take a pay cut? It is just not an easy job to make these decisions.”

Interim City Manager June Fleming said a 77-cent tax rate would require more than just “fine-tuning” of the current budget.

“We have done all the manipulation of the budget that we can,” she said of items like restricting cell-phone usage and gasoline consumption. “If the decision is that we have to take ‘x’ amount out of the budget, and it’s a large amount, tell us what that amount is and we will make it. But I tell you that it will come in the form of losing services and losing programs.”

Developers Jim Hart and Bobby Tyler questioned the large increase in assessed values between 2006 and 2008, despite a corresponding slump in the real-estate market.

“I don’t know how assessments went up when we’re in such a down market,” Hart said. “When our businesses are suffering, there are going to be some people you’re going to tax who aren’t going to pay you next year because they just don’t have the money. They’ll have to decide between paying you or buying groceries.”

Renters will suffer too, Hart and Tyler warned, as property owners pass along the cost of higher taxes to their tenants.

Political activist Thomas Councill suggested that the council cut its own expenses and redirect the money to law enforcement and recreation.

Ward 2 Councilman Benny Burgess, who campaigned last spring on a platform of more fiscal discipline in city government, challenged the 60 or so citizens at the forum to give the council suggestions on how to maintain services while reducing spending.

“I challenge each of you to not just say ‘cut,’ ” he said. “We need creative ways to continue to deliver services. I campaigned on finding creative ways. I need advice from you people.”

Vice Mayor Raystine Johnson said the council must keep public safety foremost in its budget considerations.

“Crime affects us all,” she said. “Anything that happens on the north side affects the south side, and anything that happens on the south side affects the north side. When businesses determine whether to come to Franklin, they look at our crime rate. It is a Franklin problem.”

The mayor asked for – but received no – feedback from council colleagues on their intentions for the tax rate.

“We have one last opportunity to hash it out,” he said of the council’s next meeting on Oct. 27. “That meeting will not allow us much latitude. We will have to deliberate, set a rate and call it to a vote. We need to have some conversation about it. We don’t want to get blindsided on the 27th. We need to know exactly how we’re going to proceed.”