City Council holds line on property taxes

Published 7:51 am Tuesday, October 28, 2008

FRANKLIN—The City Council answered citizens’ call to hold the line on property taxes.

A real estate tax rate of 77 cents per $100 of assessed value — approved unanimously by council members Monday night — will produce the same revenue as last year’s rate of 90 cents, city officials project. The lower tax rate will be offset by a nearly 17 percent increase in property values from the city’s biannual reassessment.

Mayor Jim Councill, who had pushed for a rate of 80 cents or 82 cents, supported the 77-cent rate “with reservation.” He said a higher rate would give the city a cushion if tax collections lag.

The 77-cent rate will require more than $300,000 in cuts from the fiscal 2009 budget approved by the council in June. A tax rate of 82 cents would have been necessary to support the budget as written.

Interim City Manager June Fleming said no current city employees will lose their jobs.

Council newcomers Barry Cheatham and Benny Burgess said the necessary savings can be achieved by enforcing existing policies, including a hiring freeze on all but police, fire and emergency personnel. Fleming and department heads also have identified nearly $100,000 in non-labor savings.

Fleming said no city services will be eliminated, though some could be affected.

“I don’t think it’s going to be dramatic,” she said.

Under the 77-cent rate, the owner of a home assessed at $200,000 will pay $1,540 in real estate taxes.

Several citizens who spoke during a public hearing before adoption of the tax rate said a tax increase is unacceptable in a time when families are being hit hard by job losses and shrinking retirement savings.

“I heard Mayor Councill talk about the breathing room he’d like to have — about being able to ride through bumps and having a rainy-day fund,” said retired businessman Holt Livesay. “I wish the heck I had all of that too. This is not a good time to be reaching into our pockets to get more money.”

Retired dentist Robert Edwards said a “slush fund and wiggle room is an ideal thing,” but a “lot of people in this audience are in a heck of a mess.”

“Where do you think people are going to get money to pay taxes if they’re on a low income?” he asked.

Businessman Norwood Boyd, a former city councilman, said the 77-cent rate would be relatively painless for city employees and consumers of city services.

“This rate would, unlike what is happening throughout the state and country, entail no layoffs,” he said. “It does not affect police, fire and EMS. The savings can be achieved mostly by eliminating budgeted but unfilled city positions.

“We have a large percentage of our citizens living on fixed incomes. The unemployment rate is rising. We simply cannot afford to increase taxes. As a city, we are overtaxed in almost every area. By adopting 77 cents, we’ll begin the process of returning to fiscal sanity.”

Greg McLemore, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor earlier this year, encouraged council members to consider the desires of the citizenry when setting the tax rate.

“You all are elected to represent us, not yourselves or your opinions, but what we want,” he said. “Most of the people in this audience would like the tax rate reduced.”

One citizen, city school board member David Benton, advocated a higher rate to ensure uninterrupted services in an economic downturn.

“I would encourage you all to set a rate at a level that allows you to rebuild some of those reserves that we need so desperately,” he said.

Burgess said the previous City Council and city manager missed an opportunity to address the city’s dwindling reserve funds when the fiscal 2009 budget was considered and adopted in June.

“I know reserves are important, but they weren’t important enough to establish them 90 days ago,” he said. “After we were elected (in May) but before we came on, we made several appearances before City Council and we pleaded to put in a hiring freeze, but it was ignored. We pleaded for a 10 percent budget cut, and the previous city manager said it couldn’t be done.

“Government will consume whatever it is given, so if you want to get it under control, you have to cut back on revenue. There are needs. The fact that we’re trying to bring in a revenue-neutral budget has nothing to do with the needs of city. The schools need more money, public works needs more money, right on down the line, but we’ve got to try to control our spending.”