City Council talks taxes in first budget session

Published 4:41 pm Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Washington’s City Council made this clear during its first formal work session on the proposed budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year: it does not want to raise taxes. On that each member agrees.

Disagreement over how to accomplish that objective and how to work through the proposed budget did surface. The council voted 4-1 not to raise taxes. Voting in the affirmative were Richard Brooks, Virginia Finnerty, William Pitt and Larry Beeman. Although he also does not want to raise taxes, Doug Mercer voted in the negative because he wanted the council to take a closer look at finding additional revenues and reducing expenses. Mayor Mac Hodges did not attended the budget session.

The proposed budget called for increasing the property-tax rate by 3 cents per $100 valuation, which would generate about $255,000. If not willing increasing taxes, Mercer said, the council needed to address how it would deal with the loss of the $255,000 by not raising taxes and how it would pay for a new police station.

“In order to eliminate that need for the three-cent tax increase, we’ve got to find $250,000 worth of new revenue or expenditure cuts. That will resolve the three-cent issue, but it does not help us with our No. 1 project (new police station). … What I would like to recommend that we trim this budget to the bare bones, that we eliminate or delay a number of projects, that we increase the transfer from the electric fund to the 3-percent of gross assets. That’s $2.1 million. With the $1.1 million (in a reserve fund) we have and the $2.1 million, that gives us a little over $3 million to build our police station,” Mercer said.

By cutting the budget as much as possible and maximizing fund transfers, the city would be able to build a new police station, Mercer said.

Finnerty, presiding over the work session as mayor pro tempore, said, “I’m listening to you, and I have to say I don’t like the tax increase either, but I certainly don’t like telling the department heads how to cut the budget. I went through the list of suggestions, and I’m not comfortable with that. I think they need to make those decisions for themselves if they’re going to cut the budget. They know what’s important for their departments. I don’t agree with that (Mercer’s suggestion).

Finnerty tried to make a motion to adopt the proposed budget “as presented.”

Mercer replied: “I think that motion is out of order until you’ve had your public hearing on the budget.”

Finnerty responded: “Well, I’d like everybody to think that.”

Brooks said he believes the council should not cut anything from the budget.

Pitt warned his council colleagues not to be “hasty” in adopting a new budget, adding the city cannot continue to cut services to bring about a balanced budget.

After more budget debate, council instructed city staff to return to a second budget session tonight with recommendations on “how to fill the void” in revenue created by the decision not to raise taxes. City Manager Bobby Roberson said those recommendations — including, but not limited to taking money from the city’s fund balance, transferring more money from the electric fund to the general fund and reducing expenses — would be presented during the budget session tonight.

“I want to tell you I’ve been sitting on this council — this is, I think, my 15th budget session. This is the first time we have not had a discussion on perhaps where we could increase revenues or we could decrease expenditures. This is a farce. I’m sorry. That’s the way I feel about it,” Mercer said.

Finnerty replied, “Well, I don’t agree with you. I’m sorry, but I don’t agree with that.”

Traditionally, the council, especially in its first formal budget session each year, goes through the proposed budget almost on a line-item-by-line-item basis.

About Mike Voss

Mike Voss is the contributing editor at the Washington Daily News. He has a daughter and four grandchildren. Except for nearly six years he worked at the Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., in the early to mid-1990s, he has been at the Daily News since April 1986.
Journalism awards:
• Pulitzer Prize for Meritorious Public Service, 1990.
• Society of Professional Journalists: Sigma Delta Chi Award, Bronze Medallion.
• Associated Press Managing Editors’ Public Service Award.
• Investigative Reporters & Editors’ Award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Public Service Award, 1989.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Investigative Reporting, 1990.
All those were for the articles he and Betty Gray wrote about the city’s contaminated water system in 1989-1990.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Investigative Reporting, 1991.
• North Carolina Press Association, Third Place, General News Reporting, 2005.
• North Carolina Press Association, Second Place, Lighter Columns, 2006.
Recently learned he will receive another award.
• North Carolina Press Association, First Place, Lighter Columns, 2010.
4. Lectured at or served on seminar panels at journalism schools at UNC-Chapel Hill, University of Maryland, Columbia University, Mary Washington University and Francis Marion University.

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