CANTON — After weeks of talks about a potential tax hike of almost 18 percent, the Canton City Council elected not to increase taxes for fiscal year 2014.
The City Council voted 5-1 Thursday night — with only Councilman Hooky Huffman opposing — to approve the previously proposed fiscal 2014 budget, but with changes that will result in the city’s millage rate staying at 6.8 mills.
In the approved budget, all city employees will receive a 3 percent cost-of-living raise and several city departments will get additional funding, including the Canton Police Department, which will get more than $200,000 over fiscal 2013 to purchase new vehicles and hire on a “ticket writer” to patrol downtown Canton.
But the most controversial increase in funding, which would have given the Canton Fire Department $500,000 to hire nine new firefighters, has been removed from the budget.
Councilman Bill Bryan, who suggested the changes to the budget during the meeting Thursday night, said his proposal to keep the tax rate the same was made with a “heavy heart.”
For months, Bryan has been one of the most vocal members of the council about the justified higher “premiums” associated with living in a city versus the county and has been a steadfast proponent of increasing funding for the city fire department.
But Bryan said during the meeting Thursday that his proposal to keep the tax rate the same by pulling a total of $1.12 million from surplus funds and not hiring the fire personnel doesn’t mean his opinions have changed.
“We do need nine firefighters,” he said. “We will be going into 2014 with enough money to hire them if the next council decides they want them.”
Bryan said although the need for the firefighters exists, the council members who take office in January, when he and Councilman Bob Rush have left office, should be the ones to make that call. Councilman John Beresford will also see his term in office expire at the end of 2013. But unlike Bryan and Rush, who aren’t seeking re-election, he has not indicated whether he will run again.
“Three of us are rolling off this council, and I think it’s best we leave (the next council) the money and let them make the decision whether they want to move the city forward and protect the people like they should be protected,” Bryan said.
Canton resident Clay Cowley, however, told the council before the vote Thursday the city should move quickly to hire the fire personnel.
“I would pay the $3 more (a month) to know my family is that much safer,” said Cowley, who is a firefighter in Woodstock. “And next year, I would pay $3 more again to have even more people.”
Cowley said the Canton Fire Department now has too few staff members, but if the council would act, residents of Canton could be better protected.
“The citizens of Canton deserve every opportunity they can have for protection,” Cowley said.
Although he later voted to approve the budget without the new firefighters, Rush also said the new firefighters are needed, adding that the city was overdue for a tax increase in general.
“This city is still under financial stress,” Rush said.
“I personally support an increase in our millage rate to get our revenue back to where it was four years ago, to set this city on a sound financial footing.”
In spite of this position, Rush said he voted to keep the tax rate the same, because he knew it wouldn’t do any good to oppose it.
Huffman, however, was willing to be the lone opposition to not raising taxes.
He explained before the vote that his reasoning for being against maintaining the tax rate was because the city needs the fire personnel.
“As everybody knows, I’m for public safety,” he said. “I’ve had some people at Sunday school come up and say ‘17, 18 percent,’ and I agree that’s way too much.”
Huffman said the city didn’t have to raise taxes nearly that high to hire the firefighters.
“To come up a quarter of a mill would give us five people,” he said. “Folks, it’s not a lot of money.”
But Beresford, who has also been firm that the new firefighters were needed, was pleased after the meeting Thursday night with the council’s move to hold taxes at bay.
“It’s going to be tough,” Beresford said. But, “We can maintain. The (city) staff has always achieved by not pigging out using up all the budget.”