About 40 concerned residents turned out for the discussion at the first of three public meetings the City Council is set to have on a proposed tax increase to accommodate the budget for fiscal 2014.
The preliminary budget being considered by the City Council would increase the budget for multiple city departments and would result in an increase in the city’s millage rate from 6.8 to 7.98 mills.
In the budget, the Canton Police Department would receive about $200,000 in additional funding, and all city employees would get a pay raise. The Canton Fire Department also would receive $500,000 to hire nine new firefighters, a proposal that has many up in arms.
But despite several council members’ recent assertions that the city is overdue for a tax hike, almost all residents who spoke at the hearing Thursday night were firm that they were against it.
Canton resident John Fincher said he was at a loss for why the city would think of raising taxes at all.
“I don’t understand the necessity,” Fincher told the council. “Maybe that hasn’t been explained to me. If there’s not a reason or rationale, then let’s not raise taxes.”
Bob Rugg, Canton resident and former chairman of the Cherokee Republican Party, said one reason the members of the council were going for the tax increase may be that they have lost touch with their constituents.
Rugg said some of the councilmen were suffering from something called “governmentia,” a fictional ailment which he said is “when leaders seem to forget why they were elected.”
“The strange thing about this ailment is it affects the leaders, but it’s the taxpayers who suffer,” Rugg said.
Rugg said taxpayers have one tool to fight against this: elections.
“I pray that one day we’ll find a permanent cure,” he said. “But for the well-being of this city I implore you to not act like irresponsible teenagers spending money for candy. We don’t need a tax increase. We need sane, logical spending.”
Despite those residents’ concerns, Councilman Hooky Huffman spoke up and defended the need for a tax increase, which he said would be the first in Canton in several years.
“We’ve gone for years cutting things back in order to save,” Huffman said. “It’s time to start reinvesting in your city in order to continue to deliver high service with fewer employees.”
Canton resident Diane Shepard warned of trying to catch up on tax increases.
“I know you’re trying to make up for lost ground, some of you, but I would caution you not to spend money you think you have coming in,” Shepard said. “Err on the side of caution with the city’s money and the city’s debt.”
Huffman said the increase, which sits at about 18 percent, only sounds like a sizable increase.
“Percent-wise, that’s heavy,” he said. “Dollar-wise, it’s not too heavy.”
But all the same, Huffman said he was willing to find a middle ground with those residents who have fought the increase.
“Being a politician is a matter of compromise,” Huffman said. “I’m going to propose what I think is a compromise that will give everybody something, and nobody will get everything.”
The compromise suggested by Huffman would lower the budget about $775,000 by only hiring five new firefighters and moving $500,000 from the city’s contingency funds into the regular budget.
“I am willing to accept less to help bring down the budget,” Huffman said.
Huffman said the criticisms the City Council has received for its spending aren’t fair, partly because the public doesn’t see all the issues he sees sitting on the council.
“Your city under extreme conditions is doing a pretty job,” he said.
Canton resident Andy Alexander agreed the city has challenges and that it may be time for a tax increase.
“After coming to council meetings for the last six years, I’ve had an opportunity to see how this city government works and had an opportunity to see all the problems the city’s facing,” Alexander said. “Based on what I’ve been able to see over the years, in my opinion, I think the increases being presented tonight are satisfactory to meet the city’s needs.”
Alexander was one of four residents who spoke at the hearing who was in favor of the tax increase.
Councilman Bill Bryan, who has in recent weeks shown support in raising the budget to hire firefighters, said Thursday night that he is now on the fence on the budget.
“This is an ongoing process,” Bryan said. “I have definitely not made up my mind as to how I’m going to go on this.”
Should the millage rate be set at 7.98 mills, Canton residents would see a roughly $47 increase for every $100,000 in the value of their home holds. A homeowner with a house valued at $200,000 would see a tax increase from $544 to about $638 over the rate from 2013, before exemptions.
The Canton City Council will hold two more public hearings on its fiscal 2014 budget, one on Aug. 15 and the final hearing to adopt the budget on Aug. 22. Both meetings will be at City Hall at 6 p.m.