North Augusta City Council gave the first OK to its 2018 budget Monday night, voting 6-1 with Fletcher Dickert in opposition because he thought the process didn’t explore options to a tax increase deeply enough.
The budget contains a 3-mill property tax increase – about $24 on a $200,000 house – and a 1 percent hike in the hospitality sales tax – about 40 cents on a $40 restaurant tab. It also includes an increase of 25 cents per 1,000 gallons in the wastewater fee, which is a “pass-through” expense from Horse Creek Water Treatment Plant to pay for improvements there.
Council also passed individual ordinances to enable levying the property tax and raising the hospital tax and wastewater rate. Dickert cast the lone vote against the first two, but supported the third, making that one unanimous.
Dickert gave three reasons for opposing the budget. They included the process, which should have considered exactly what cuts would have to be made if the property tax were not increased, he said. He also thought the city should try harder to live within its means, “just like every citizen in North Augusta has to.” And he worried that raising the hospitality tax was going back on a promise made to residents to keep it at 1 percent in exchange for support of past local option sales taxes. He said he thought raising it would cause some not to support Capital Sales Tax 4, which will be on the ballot in November 2018.
But Dickert acknowledged that it would be a “waste of time for staff to start over,” and suggested that council adopt his approach for the 2019 budget.
Mayor Bob Pettit, who has taken the lead on budgeting, has maintained that the city should not cut its services to residents when growth in the city is booming and tax revenues will catch up.
“Tough calls are not necessarily cuts,” he said. “It’s equally tough to recognize – as I think council did in study sessions – that the level of services we provide our citizens needs to be maintained.”
Monday night’s meeting was preceded by a public hearing on the budget, but only three people rose to speak or ask a question.
Steve Donahue, a well-known opponent of the Riverside Village development formerly known as Project Jackson, brought a stack of 81 $1 bills to illustrate his property tax increase. He said only $8 of the $81 would go to the general fund, while the rest would go to repay the Tax Increment Financing bonds that are financing the riverfront development.
Pettit acknowledged that some tax money from people who live in the TIF district would go repay the bonds, but said it would amount only to a total of about $19,000. The tax increase paid by people who don’t live in the district won’t apply to the bonds, he said.
Dr. David Allen, a local pediatrician and tennis enthusiast, made a pitch for more courts, and Kenton J. Makin asked whether the budget set aside money for public transit. City Administrator Todd Glover told him that the city helps pay for the Best Friend Express, which provides bus service countywide.
Another public hearing on the budget will be held Nov. 6, followed by the second of three votes required for final approval.