Normally, citizens get riled when a tax hike is considered. But a local resident who spoke on Mount Airy’s preliminary budget for 2014-2015 had the opposite view.
Kelly Hiatt urged during a public hearing on the budget Thursday night before the city board of commissioners that a proposed 4-cent property tax cut be reconsidered.
Hiatt, a former lieutenant with the Mount Airy Police Department who retired around the first of this year after more than 28 years of service, took aim not only at the reduction now eyed but also a recent tax-cutting trend.
“I feel you need to stop trying to lower the tax rate,” Hiatt told the commissioners, who in 2011 pledged to slash it by 10 cents over five years. “I feel it has been lowered too much already,” he added.
Hiatt said this has put pressure on the heads of municipal departments to make cuts in order to realize the tax decreases, which he believes will be counter-productive in the long run.
“If you continue,” he told the board while reading from a prepared statement, “the next thing you are going to force is the elimination of city employees’ jobs and some of the great services the city provides.”
Hiatt continued, “It costs more and more to run the city each year, so it makes no sense to cut your revenues. I really can understand making every effort to try and not raise taxes, but cutting them is not the right thing to do.”
He fears that the revenue-reduction stance could affect public safety due to cuts prompting the fire and police departments to eliminate programs aimed at preventing crimes and fires.
Meanwhile, Hiatt said the property tax reductions — including a proposal to lower the rate from 52 to 48 cents per $100 of assessed valuation for 2014-2015 — provide only minimal relief to citizens. “The average taxpayer with an average-size house is only going to save a few dollars in a whole-year’s time if you cut four cents off the tax rate.”
The owner of a $125,000 home, for example, would see the tax bill drop next year from $650 to $600, a decrease of 7.7 percent.
Hiatt told the commissioners that such reductions might have to be undone in the future, due to the prevailing effect on the revenue picture.
“I have seen commissioners, over the years, cut the tax rate only to have commissioners that come along later have to raise it back up,” he said.
Had the decreases of recent years not been made, Hiatt added, Mount Airy would be in “great financial shape” — with citizens happy that taxes were kept stable and not raised.
“Of course, there are those handful that wouldn’t be happy with that, but let’s face it, they would complain if you lowered it (the tax rate) 20 cents,” he further told the commissioners. “Sometimes I think you pay a little too much attention to those few.”
John Pritchard, a frequent budget critic of municipal government, offered a different opinion during Thursday night’s public hearing.
“It’s no secret to anybody that I pay a lot of attention to the city budget,” Pritchard said from the podium.
He referred to information contained in a Tuesday email to Mount Airy officials, which indicates that city departments are coming in under budget in recent years and that annual spending forecasts are larger each year than necessary.
For example, the fire department has wound up spending about $200,000 less than projected in each of the last four years, according to Pritchard’s research.
It also shows that for the past four years, the city parks and recreation division has had substantial funds left over in its expense budget each year while underestimating revenue projections by sums ranging from $14,000 to $79,000.
Pritchard added in his email that the question is why the budgets continue to be overly large, and too small regarding expected revenues.
City officials had no response Thursday night to any questions raised or comments made, with the hearing’s purpose simply for the commissioners to receive public input.
The city council will hold a budget workshop Tuesday before passage of the package for the next fiscal year, which goes into effect on July 1.
Storage Building Vote
Also Thursday night, the city commissioners voted 5-0 to approve a site plan amendment for property at 1656 Park Drive, location of an existing business known as Ultimate Towing and Recovery.
The vote paves the way for owner Bobby Koehler to construct a 5,000-square-foot building to store wreckers for the operation.
This was a follow-up to city action in 2011 when the 2.04-acre site on Park Drive was rezoned from a residential to conditional-use B-3 (Neighborhood Business) classification to accommodate the automotive entity.
The approval of the site plan change allowing the new building did come with a condition. It will require that a row of Leyland cypress evergreen trees of 6 feet tall at the time of planting be placed at 6-foot intervals along the eastern boundary of the property in question.
This will provide a landscape buffer to shield the automotive business from adjoining properties.
No one opposed the site plan amendment at a public hearing last month.
Rezoning Hearing Set
The board also voted to hold a public hearing on a rezoning proposal affecting property on Ruritan Lane, located near the intersection of North Franklin Road and West Pine Street (N.C. 89).
Franklin Ruritan Club is the owner of the site at 140 Ruritan Lane.
Hull’s Sales Inc. on West Pine Street is petitioning for the zoning of the property to be changed from R-20 (residential) to B-4 (Highway Business).
The site is within the extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ) zone, a one-mile area surrounding Mount Airy where land is subject to municipal zoning regulations.
Council members set the public hearing for their next meeting on June 19 at 7 p.m. to give citizens a chance to weigh in on the rezoning proposal.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.