Johnson City commissioners rejected Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin’s proposed 22-cent property tax increase Thursday in the form of an amendment to partially maintain city and school funding in fiscal 2015.
The vote was 3-2. Van Brocklin and Commissioner Jenny Brock voted for the increase; Vice Mayor Clayton Stout, and Commissioners David Tomita and Jeff Banyas opposed the move.
Numerous counterproposals were offered up. But at the end of a grueling five-hour meeting, an amendment Banyas offered was approved in a 3-2 vote, with Van Brocklin and Brock voting against.
Banyas’ amendment raised the local gas franchise tax, put $500,000 back into the Johnson City School’s budget, reinstated up to six police officers, kept the Legion Street Pool open — for the time being — and maintained the city television service, which broadcasts City Commission meetings. The amendment also adds $350,000 back from the city’s fund balance to help fund the new farmer’s market.
Commissioners will meet again this morning for a second reading, and further amendments are expected.
“When I ran for office, I said I would not take a tax increase off the table,” Tomita said. “But in this process, we’ve gone with the assumption there was going to be a tax increase, and I’m not comfortable with that.”
Van Brocklin ran through a lengthy presentation on the various scenarios, including the starting point: a balanced $204 million budget that included $2.5 million in city cuts and a requirement that schools cover their operating budget increase through fund balance reduction, expense reduction or both.
The mayor made a motion to get the proposed budget on the table for discussion — the balanced but wounded budget. He then introduced his amendment.
Numerous members of the public, as well as a few local officials spoke during a public hearing. None spoke against a property tax increase.
“I know that you have some tough decisions to make,” said Board of Education Chairwoman Kathy Hall. “You know that a healthy school system is good for the economy. Our budget shortfall was not a surprise to anyone. Without additional funding, the cuts we will have to make will be heartbreaking.”
Van Brocklin’s proposal would have given 10 cents to the school system. An additional 12 cents would have gone to the city’s general fund. The proposal also would have brought back funding for six police officers ($285,000) partially funded special appropriations ($161,000), paid the salary of a special prosecutor ($80,000), kept Legion Street Pool open through July 1, 2015 ($62,000), funded $20,000 for firefighter helmets and maintained coverage of City Commission meetings ($20,000).
The amendment also would have appropriated $350,000 in funding for the new farmer’s market and $200,000 for a power line from the Science Hill campus central plant to Freedom Hall. Additional cuts would have been made at the city manager’s discretion.
“Sometimes you have to raise taxes,” said Tom McKee, Johnson City Power Board attorney and former city commissioner. “We have to fund the schools.”
On Wednesday, one day prior to the Thursday’s first reading, Johnson City-Jonesborough-Washington County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Gary Mabrey, emailed commissioners and city staff. The subject line read, “Property Tax Increase.”
“At the Chamber Board’s Executive Committee meeting June 17th, and subsequently in follow-up conversations with the Chamber Board, we recommend you increase the property tax,” Mabrey wrote. “We do not have an amount in mind. The public-institutional-private partnership continues to position us for a bright future, as business invests and reinvests in our city. The cumulative of these investments is quite obvious.”
Mabrey concludes the communique by saying the Chamber looks forward to “working with you as we implement the upcoming FY budget and seek an optimum return on our mutual investments.”
The Chamber board has known for the past year maintaining current levels of investment in the community without a tax increase would be very difficult, and its members have indicated they want to see those investments occur. Van Brocklin suggested a specific property tax increase breakdown for the first time at a June 9, Chamber-sponsored meeting.
In other business, commissioners:
• Approved a first reading of an ordinance to amend the city charter to allow municipal elections to coincide with the November general election. If approved after three readings, the matter will be put to voters during this year’s Nov. 4 election in the form of a question and “yes” and “no” choices.
• Approved a beer license request from the Johnson City Sports Foundation, which operates and promotes the Appalachian League’s Johnson City Cardinals at Cardinal Park. Beer sales will begin June 23 at the Johnson City Cardinals’ second 2014 home game against the Danville Braves.
• Approved a third reading of an ordinance to one reading of an ordinance to rezone property at 500 W. Walnut St. from B-2 (central business) to B-3 (supporting central business) to accommodate Evolve Development’s apartment complex.
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