During a budget work session Monday afternoon, the City Council was presented with a preliminary 2014 budget, which would increase the amounts for several departments and give city employees a 3 percent raise, resulting in a millage rate of 7.3, up from 6.8 mills for 2013.
But at the insistence of several council members, the city may hire nine new firefighters, causing the millage rate to go even higher to 8.05 mills.
The City Council is set to discuss the budget again today during a work session at 5 p.m. at City Hall.
If the rate increases to 7.3 mills, that would cost homeowners $20 for every $100,000 in value their home has on top of the rate paid in 2013.
If the nine firefighters are hired and the millage rate is set at 8.05, Canton residents would see a $50 increase for every $100,000 in value. A homeowner with a house valued at $200,000 would see a tax increase from $544 to $644.
During the work session Monday, members of the council in favor of adding the fire personnel initially discussed only raising the millage rate enough to hire a few of the firefighters since all nine wouldn’t be hired and working for the entire fiscal year, but the talk later shifted to increasing the rate the full amount to 8.05.
“Realistically, could the fire chief hire nine firefighters at one time and be able to train them?” Councilman Bob Rush asked.
“No way,” City Manager Scott Wood answered.
“So if we raise the millage rate to cover the nine firefighters, at the end of the fiscal year we’d have an amount of money available that wasn’t spent,” Rush said.
Canton Chief Financial Officer Nathan Ingram advised against only raising the rate enough for a few new firefighters if the plan was to hire nine.
“If you set the millage rate based on that, come next year, you’re going to need to increase the millage rate again, because next year, we’ll have the full cost,” Ingram said.
Councilman Hooky Huffman, who brought up the topic Monday, expressed concern that with several new members coming onto the council in January, the action to hire the firefighters could be overturned.
Wood said it was possible.
“The only thing they can’t change is the millage rate, because that’s already been set, but any budget alignment, they can change,” Wood said. “You do it every time you vote on a budget amendment.”
Councilman Bill Bryan said the council should and raise the millage rate the full amount, which will make it harder for a future council to overturn the action.
“I’ll just go ahead and say what’s on everybody’s mind: If we go ahead and start the hiring process of these nine new firefighters, it will make it a little more difficult for the new council to undo what we’ve done,” Bryan said. “If they want to give away the fire department and get rid of these nine new guys, that’s going to be a little tougher.” Bryan asked if the council had the fortitude to do that.
Councilman John Beresford said it was time to move on hiring the new employees.
“We want nine firemen,” he said, suggesting that the cost of the new employees be added to the preliminary budget. “If they hire one here and two months later another one or two, so be it. Let’s do it, and let’s move on. We’re sitting here just whipping on this horse to death.”
Huffman and Rush both added that the City Council hasn’t voted to increase taxes in several years.
“We didn’t as a council, for the last couple years, go to what we like to call ‘revenue neutral,’ so now it’s catching up with us,” Rush said.
Mayor Gene Hobgood said he had a “different perspective” on the idea of hiring nine new firefighters without building a new station for them to work in.
“To me, that is a costly situation there,” Hobgood said. “It looks to me like you’d want to hire those nine after you build the Laurel Canyon station.”
But plans for this fire station have now gone by the wayside, councilmen said.
Hobgood said the city’s goal of reaching an ISO rating of 3 should be reached after November when the Cherokee County Fire Training Complex opens and the city signs an agreement with the county for use of the facility.
“The cost of that (method of) getting to a 3 is going to be far less in my opinion than the cost of nine firefighters,” he said.
Hobgood added that the city has basically promised residents in the Laurel Canyon area that a fire station would be built there.
“Are we saying now that we’re not, or are we just going to put it off for a while,” Hobgood asked.
“I don’t think we’re going to build a fire station at Laurel Canyon anytime soon,” Bryan said, because a recent ISO review of the city’s fire services said no need existed for the station.
However, Huffman said “the glowing thing” learned from the ISO review was that Canton is in need of more firefighters.
A public hearing to allow input from the community will be scheduled once the proposed budget is finalized.