By Scott Robertson
With the caveat that he did not expect what he was voting on to be the final version of the fiscal 2016 budget, Vice Mayor Clayton Stout cast the deciding vote approving the $225+ million budget and its accompanying 40-cent property tax increase Thursday night on first reading. Stout joined Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin and Commissioner Jenny Brock in casting votes in the positive. Commissioners Jeff Banyas and David Tomita voted against the budget proposal.
The vote ended a 90-plus minute long debate that included a great deal of philosophical discussion, but very little in the way of up-or-down decision making regarding specific budget points.
The budget proposal originally brought to the commission by city staff called for a 37-cent property tax hike. City Manager Pete Peterson detailed the proposal in a 38-page Powerpoint presentation that took almost 45 minutes. “What you’re seeing is 37 cents,” Peterson told the commission. “What I first saw was probably 50 cents or a little bit higher. There are a lot of things we recognize need to be done that are not included in this budget. This isn’t a ‘first ask.’ This is the result of many hours of working it down from 50 cents to get where we are.”
Each cent in property tax generates around $170,000 for the city.
Peterson pointed out well over a million dollars in efficiencies in spending the staff has realized before asking for the tax increase. He also showed the commission the results of a poll of city residents that showed 88 to 91 percent support for a tax increase to fund public safety, education and repaving.
“This budget is truly based on the input we’ve gotten from you and the citizens throughout the community,” Peterson said. “We are very, very proud of the fact that in the last 24 years we have operated this organization with one tax increase. It’s been 14 years since we had that tax increase. We have been able to do that because previous commissions and you have realized that when you make strategic reinvestments in your community, as evidenced by what we have done downtown, the private sector will follow. We have weighed this very heavily.”
Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin opened the floor to each commissioner in turn to make opening statements, after which he asked that commissioners bring any amendments to the budget. Van Brocklin asked that revenue adjustments be brought forward first, then any cuts commissioners might wish to propose. “We need to be specific in what we’re asking for in the way of revenue adjustments, additions or paring from the budget,” Van Brocklin said. “And if there is a proposal to cut to a specific penny level in the budget, I would like to see an identification of what is proposed to be cut in order to accommodate that.”
Van Brocklin then moved the acceptance of the budget and asked for a second in order to open discussion. Brock seconded the motion.
Banyas opened the discussion by stating a desire to have greater emphasis placed on resurfacing the city’s roads. He also questioned the lack of a mechanism for growing the fund balance in the budget.
“I’ve spent many hours poring through the budget and all its requests,” Banyas said, “and I can honestly say I do not think there are any projects or any proposals that are made that are irresponsible or wasteful.”
However, Banyas added, “There are still many areas where we can improve and we can do more with less.”
“My concern is that a 37-cent property tax increase is very large and there’s the possibility the county may be forced to raise taxes, and if that happens, that’s going to put a tremendous burden on the city taxpayer who pays both county and city property tax.”
(Ed. note: County Mayor Dan Eldridge has said the county budget committee will propose a balanced budget for 2016 with no property tax increase. It is possible, Eldridge noted, that the county commission may choose to go forward with school building projects that would require a significant increase, however. Should such a decision be taken, it would happen after Johnson City sets its 2016 budget. See story below.)
Tomita agreed with Banyas’ statement that the city could do more with less, adding, “There’s nothing frivolous in this budget. It’s all good stuff. But I think of a tax increase as a last resort. I don’t want to add pennies without looking at the efficiency side first.”
Stout moved for a five-cent property tax hike to bring road resurfacing up beyond the levels city staff had asked for, citing many complaints he has received from taxpayers. The commission balked at the five-cent increase, but did eventually approve a three-cent hike for that purpose.
The commission will meet again Thursday evening at city hall to consider the budget on second reading. Final reading is scheduled for June 18.