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City board votes in 35-cent tax increase

Posted on Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 12:36 pm

New City Administrator (1)

Fayetteville’s new city administrator, Scott Collins, talks with the board during Tuesday’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting.

Amid arguments opposing a 35-cent increase in the city’s property tax rate, the Fayetteville Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted 4-2 Tuesday evening to approve the hike, which includes a nickel for a new municipal pool.

The meeting got underway with a public hearing on increasing the rate from $1.2996 to $1.65 per $100 of assessed valuation. It was a hearing that saw several residents speak out against the increase and only two speak in its favor, with both of those weighing in heavily in support of the new pool a portion of the increase would fund.

“I don’t believe this board understands or knows its constituents,” said Homer Thompson, the first resident taking the podium in opposition to the increase, going on to say that 29.8% of the city’s 6,827 residents are below the poverty level and 22.5% are 65 years of age or older. Thompson suggested that the board consider other revenue sources while also implementing a number of other cost-cutting measures, including giving employees an early out, not giving raises for the next two years, stopping the practice of allowing some city employees from taking their vehicles home, combining street and recreation departments, and cutting outside agencies by 25%.

“I’m disappointed in all of you and thought you had our best interest at heart, but now, I know you don’t,” said Mary Lee Pitts, a senior citizen who talked about the difficulty of getting by on the retirements she and her husband draw.

Tim Mitchell, owner of Star Wheels, also addressed the board members, thanking them for their time but admonishing them for not making the necessary cuts a businessperson would make in a similar situation.

“If something comes up you can’t afford, you have the attitude a parent has with a small child, that all you have to do is write a check,” he said, going on to addressed the recertified tax rate and what he described as a “double whammy” of that coupled with the tax increase.

Saying he wasn’t sure if he was for or against the increase, local businessman Roger Cowell said he had agreed with the city’s effort to raise sales tax by a quarter of a percent, an effort that failed on referendum last year.

“Fayetteville is not a town that attracts young people,” Cowell went on to say, noting that under a certain program, a senior citizen’s property taxes can be frozen. But he then addressed a recent situation, which saw many property owners not properly billed for their taxes. “You’ve got to prove that trust to us,” he added.

Debbie Ragsdale, a realtor and business owner, said the 27% increase in the city’s property tax rate would significantly impact sales and force people to purchase land in rural Lincoln County. She also alluded to an increase in salaries and additional employees anticipated in the fiscal year 2013-14 budget.

“On the other hand, the pool I think is a fabulous idea,” she said, adding that it is the only way to draw young people into the community.

Mary Ann Tackett also addressed the board. A local business owner and realtor, she agreed with Ragsdale’s comments, adding, “We are a bedroom community and have a lot of older citizens … It’s hard on people.”

Speaking in favor of the tax increase were Dawn Dixon and Steve Swindall, who both emphasized the need for a new swimming pool. Dixon also noted that neighboring communities have higher tax rates.

“I am willing to pay a higher tax rate if we can improve infrastructure and create a new pool,” she added.

“We don’t realize what we have,” said Swindall. “I won’t pretend I know all the numbers, but we have to trust y’all with our money … You’re not exempt from the increase yourselves.”

When the matter of increasing the tax rate came up for a vote during the regular meeting, which followed the hearing, board members voted 4-2 in favor of the hike. The same vote, 4-2, was also given to the city’s 2013-14 budget. Voting in favor were aldermen Danny Bryant, Marty Pepper, Tom Young, and Michael Whisenant, and voting opposed were vice mayor Gwen Shelton and alderman Dorothy Small.

But those votes came only after lengthy comments from board members as they discussed their efforts to contain costs over the last several years as well as their wrestling with the issue in recent months.

“The city has had three adjustments in the last 30 years, so this board over time has been very good stewards,” said Whisenant, adding that a new pool is needed and that no one on the board wants to raise the property tax rate.

While Shelton noted that taxes are needed for streets and quality of life areas, she said the board should do a better job of prioritizing the budget and more willing to cut outside agencies as well as IDB.

Bryant discussed the tax increases in the last 30 years, noting that one in 2003 consisted of a nickel to replace lost state revenue, another in 1991 amounted to a dime lost due to the census, the third in 1985, which was 30 cents, to replace federal revenue losses, and a fourth in 1983 for the general fund.

“You make a lot of good points,” he said, “and I don’t want property taxes to increase, but we are in a situation to make a tough decision … We had worked up a plan to increase the sales tax one quarter of a percent, which would have raised approximately $600,000 but that failed.”

Bryant went on to note that the city employees are not receiving raises this year and described maintenance of effort requirements under state law that prohibit the city from reducing funding for the library. He also compared Fayetteville’s $4.48 per capita expenditure for the library, saying it is the lowest in the state. He also discussed efforts related to the city school system and the lack of raises and other increases there, as well as other efforts.

Mayor John Ed Underwood also spoke of the board’s efforts, particularly in regard to the sales tax, saying, “There are two here that campaigned against it … I don’t feel too sorry for any of us, me included,” he said. “We have to move on, we have to make progress.”