Johnson City leaders appear to be moving toward a property tax hike. Recent hearings on the city’s new budget have been full of fiscal doom and gloom. Tears of woe have drenched the walls of the Municipal and Safety Building.
Without a tax increase, all progress in the downtown area will come to a grinding halt, the Legion Street Pool will be drained and city schoolchildren will see their budding futures placed in jeopardy.
Yes, it seems the city’s first property tax hike in 12 years is a forgone conclusion. It’s inevitable.
Or is it?
I’m not making judgments for or against a tax increase, but I am amazed to hear folks talk as if it’s a done deal. I don’t think it is. There are five members of the City Commission, and there doesn’t appear to be three clear votes for raising taxes. At least not yet.
In the past year, Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin has done a good job of setting the table for the current discussion. He has been quite candid in his talk about the possibility of raising the city’s property tax rate. If nothing else, he is to be commended on the courage of his convictions. I can’t recall any other Johnson City mayor who was so willing to discuss the idea of raising taxes less than a year before he stood for re-election.
Certainly, it’s a difficult topic for a politician in our area to broach at any time, and it doesn’t matter that the city has gone more than a decade without a tax hike. Doing so now, many residents will argue, shows how city officials have mismanaged tax dollars. (Interestingly, the same people who gripe the loudest about tax increases often pay as much or more a year for cable service, but barely complain when those bills go up, which they do regularly.)
Johnson City officials are not alone in struggling with revenues this year. Shrinking property tax values and a decline in sales tax collections have hit many local budgets pretty hard. In Kingsport, City Manager John Campbell (who is set to retire soon) trotted out the idea of a “garbage fee” to offset a property tax increase. Kingsport aldermen, however, judged such a fee to be unfair and instead approved a 13-cent property tax hike.
A property tax hike in Johnson City will take three votes. Commissioner Clayton Stout campaigned on a “no tax increase” platform, (which I think is shortsighted because there are times when a hike is merited) and I don’t see him going back on that pledge. Commissioner Jeff Banyas has also been very cold to the idea of a tax hike and Commissioner David Tomita believes raising taxes should be the board’s last option. The first course of action for commissioners, Tomita told me last week, is to look for areas to cut the budget and save costs. He said that could mean putting some projects on hold for a year.
“The answer might be a property tax increase, but we aren’t there yet,” he said.
With the new fiscal year set to begin July 1, we shall soon find out if this is indeed the year for a tax hike. In the meantime, commissioners are scheduled to hold two more budget hearings this week.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/JCPressRobertHouk. Follow him at Twitter.com/houkRobert.