The East Ridge residents who showed up for the City Council agenda meeting Thursday night were prepared to sit for hours as the council discussed the upcoming year’s proposed budget, line by line.
But after an abrupt motion and an hour of arguing, the council voted 3-2 in favor of a budget proposal that includes a 30 cent property tax increase and a 3 percent pay raise for city employees.
The council also proposed to increase solid waste fees by $5 a month and bump up the city’s hotel/motel tax by 2 percent.
“I’m upset, disappointed. I was ready to be here for two or three hours — I thought they’d at least discuss other rates,” said East Ridge resident Richard Eldrod.
At the start of the meeting, Councilman Darwin Branam — who served as a liaison between the council and staff while the budget was drawn up — made the motion. He said that the staff had gone through the budget “with a fine-tooth comb,” and that the city’s looming $600,000 deficit could only be eliminated with some significant revenue increases.
Branam said he decided to go ahead and make the motion to avoid a laborious council discussion, since he and the members of staff had already gone through the budget many times and made all the cuts they thought were feasible.
The extra revenue from a tax increase — about $1.8 million — would create leeway for a 3 percent raise for all city employees, directing $220,000 to salary increases for police and firefighters, and paying $219,000 a year back into the city’s depleted reserve fund, Branam said.
Councilman Jim Bethune vehemently spoke out against the motion, saying many people in the city wouldn’t be able to afford a steep tax hike because of the economy and declining property values that aren’t in line with the county’s assessment two years ago.
“There’s so many people who live from week to week, paycheck to paycheck,” he said, before pointing at each council member in the room “He can pay [the tax], he can pay it, he can pay it, I can pay it — she can’t,” he said, referring to the city’s elderly.
The property tax increase would mean homeowners would pay an additional $75 a year for a $100,000 house.
City Manager Tim Gobble maintains that without an increase in revenue or severe cuts to services, the city would be forced to take money out of its reserve funds to avoid racking up its third six-figure deficit in three years.
“We can’t keep dipping into our reserves. They’re depleted as low as they can go,” he said.
Branam, Mayor Brent Lambert and Vice Mayor Larry Sewell voted in favor of the increase, while Bethune and Councilman Denny Manning opposed.
“But it was a predictable vote,” noted Elrod. “It’s been 3-2 for months now. I call them the ‘gang of three,’” Elrod said of Lambert, Sewell and Branam.
The tax hikes will be discussed during the first budget reading next Thursday night. The public is invited to comment at that meeting. The final draft of the budget will be voted on June 23.