Mount Airy officials adopted a 2012-2013 budget Monday after a lengthy debate that included heated remarks from a city commissioner to a citizen.
A morning budget workshop was dominated by a discussion on striking a balance between maintaining needed services vs. slashing taxes, and whether taxation can be reduced further without undermining Mount Airy’s quality of life.
And although one commissioner lobbied for a 2-cent reduction in the property tax rate, it will remain at 56 cents per $100 of assessed valuation due to Monday’s vote — with no water or sewer hikes as well. This means some owners will pay less taxes, since a countywide property revaluation reduced real city estate values by 2.8 percent overall.
The passage of a budget for the next fiscal year that begins on July 1 had been expected later this month when the board of commissioners holds its next regular meeting — based on tradition. Instead, it was approved unanimously after Monday’s budget workshop, which lasted more than three hours in a conference room of the Municipal Building.
Yet the fact that the city’s spending blueprint of $17.4 million has been finalized for another year doesn’t mean the process was easy.
One rough moment came Monday when Commissioner Scott Graham reacted to comments made during a public hearing on the budget Thursday night when John Pritchard leveled criticism for not continuing tax cuts made in previous years.
“Three commissioners pretty much said they were not open to that,” Pritchard had said regarding a discussion during a winter planning retreat when city government priorities were set.
Graham responded Monday that he did not mind someone criticizing him or the board, but he believed Pritchard should have referred to the commissioners by name.
At that point, Pritchard — a frequent critic of city government spending who was in the audience for Monday’s workshop — attempted to respond, but was cut off by Graham.
“Excuse me, I’m not through!” he told Pritchard.
“I’ve not ever heard you say anything positive. To me, you don’t matter anymore — you just don’t matter,” Graham concluded.
Two-Cent Decrease Backed
Commissioner Shirley Brinkley advocated a 2-cent tax cut Monday, saying she wants city leaders to continue a 2011 pledge by the board to reduce the rate by a total of 10 cents over a five-year period.
Brinkley said this would result in a savings of more than $200,000. “I feel like we could get the revenues back to make up for this,” she said. Among her ideas to do so was finding a fuel supplier for city vehicles who might charge less than an inflated figure Brinkley believes is reflected in the budget.
Another plan involves having the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce pay some of the costs of security and maintenance of streets during its annual Autumn Leaves Festival — expenses now absorbed by the city government.
Brinkley also took aim at a 2-percent cost-of-living pay increase recommended for city employees. “I am not in favor of across-the-board raises,” she said. “What I would like to see is a pay-for-performance raise.”
However, after further discussion, Brinkley did vote in favor of the budget without the tax decrease she sought.
Nowhere To Cut?
The budget for 2012-2013 is 7.7 percent less than this year’s, reflecting a trend of reductions in various municipal departments in the past several years which have allowed taxes to be slashed as well.
“The fat has been cut out of the budget — it’s been on the biggest-loser program for three years,” Commissioner Jon Cawley said in reference to those reductions.
Further decreases, Cawley said, will require “invasive surgery.”
In Commissioner Dean Brown’s view, ways exist to lower taxation more — but would require such moves as firing sanitation, police or fire personnel.
“Who’s going to pick up the garbage, you know?” Brown said. “You see how ridiculous it can get with where I’m going.”
Brown added of decreasing the tax rate that “there are things we could do…but it would not be Mount Airy — but I’m for lowering it if we can.”
Pritchard, who asked for “equal time” Monday after Graham criticized his remarks concerning the budget, said he could offer several places to cut, given that the city has built up a “considerable” surplus of funds.
He also listed the lowering of fuel expenses, charging the chamber for festival costs, eliminating the raise for city workers, targeting parks and recreation program fees and perhaps charging more for the 48 percent of users who don’t live in the city, examining the cost of a new program in which the fire department answers medical calls and slashing the city’s special appropriations to outside agencies.
Those entities, including the Surry Arts Council, will receive more than $200,000 in combined appropriations next year.
Both Pritchard and fellow citizen Paul Eich said the arts council is a sound financial organization that does not need an annual $87,500 “subsidy,” as Eich called it, from municipal taxpayers.
But Cawley countered that the relatively small savings to taxpayers wouldn’t justify such a drastic move as not funding the outside agencies.
He said a 2-cent cut in the rate would allow the owner of a $100,000 home a tax break of $20 next year, and questioned whether “that would be worth” depriving community organizations such as the arts group, library, rescue squad and museum.
“I have found cutting taxes more easy that cutting services,” Cawley said.
“Where can we cut and still maintain what we’re trying to accomplish?” said Brown.
Pritchard’s suggestions also drew a sharp response from Commissioner Steve Yokeley: “Mr. Pritchard, I can’t believe you’re criticizing the fire department medical calls.”
City officials have said the medical program implemented in December 2010 allows more efficient use of fire personnel at a slight cost, and is saving lives. “I don’t see how this practice can be a waste of money. Maybe we need to have some of the survivors and (their) families give their message,” Yokeley said.
Graham said the suggestion to make the chamber and possibly other organizations pay police and maintenance costs for festivals might be a burden for those groups and undermine the events’ quality.
“The safety at these festivals is one of the reasons why so many people attend them, I think,” Graham said.
Tax Cut Hidden In Budget
Yokeley said Monday he thinks it’s incorrect to say that reducing property taxes no longer is a priority of the city board. He said next year’s budget does reflect that objective.
“I think people have a hard time understanding that we did actually cut taxes,” Graham agreed.
The reduction in tax revenue due to the revaluation equates to a 1.5-cent drop in the rate, Yokeley said.
He was referring to information earlier presented by City Manager Barbara Jones, who said the countywide property revaluation lowered Mount Airy’s tax base by $27 million. That translates into a $144,000 decline in tax revenue that the same 56-rate produced for the present fiscal year.
(Jones has said that commercial and industrial taxpayers have benefited the most by this, although some owners of residential property also will see lower tax bills.)
“I think the budget is a good common-sense budget for this year,” Yokeley commented.
“I’m for the budget as proposed,” said Graham, who made the motion Monday which led to its approval.
Reach Tom Joyce at 719-1924 or email@example.com.