CANTON — After strong objection from residents and one City Council member, the city of Canton may be heading back to the drawing board on a proposed property tax increase of almost 18 percent for fiscal 2014.
On Thursday night, the City Council had the second of three public hearings on the proposed fiscal 2014 budget, which would result in an increase of the city’s millage rate from 6.8 mills to 7.98 mills, and after hearing clear opposition, several members of the council said they got the message and would be rethinking the increase.
Within the proposed budget being considered by the council, all city employees would get a pay raise and the Canton Fire Department would receive $500,000 in additional funding to hire on nine new firefighters, which were added to the budget at the insistence of several council members.
After being mostly quiet on the proposed tax hike in recent weeks, Councilman Glen Cummins came to the hearing Thursday night prepared with a three-page rebuttal bashing the plan.
Cummins said the increase was totally unnecessary and that the council could keep the tax rate at 6.8 mills without much trouble.
This could be accomplished, Cummins said, by not hiring the firemen, not giving certain city staff members — like City Manager Scott Wood, Police Chief Robert Merchant and Fire Chief Dean Floyd — the same 3 percent cost-of-living raise as other employees and taking $250,000 from surplus funds to pad the budget.
During his lengthy statement, Cummins took particular issue with the idea of bringing in the new fire department staff, which he said the Floyd hasn’t even requested.
“According to the budget submitted by the fire chief, not a single additional firefighter was requested,” he said. “The nine firefighters proposed are unnecessary and are a waste of taxpayer dollars.”
Cummins said hiring more fire department staff could be beneficial, “but the benefit is not justified by the cost.”
Resident Roy Taylor, who spoke during the hearing, also questioned the council’s proposal to hire the staff.
“How is it that the council is seeing better than the department that you put in charge to do that?” Taylor asked.
Resident Dwayne Toney agreed the idea was flawed.
Toney said while addressing the council that Canton voters gave their opinion on fire department expansion earlier this year when they voted down the fire bond referendum, a proposal which would have let the city take out $6 million in bonds to pay for three new fire stations. Had it passed, the referendum would have resulted in a tax increase to pay debt service on the bonds.
“An overwhelming 70 percent voted ‘no’ to the bond referendum, ‘no’ to the fire stations and ‘no’ to the fire trucks,” Toney said. “Now, we’re faced with another proposed tax increase.”
But the current take hike on the table is “different,” Toney said.
“This one is not in the hands of the voters; this proposed tax increase will be decided by you, the City Council members,” he said. “The residents of the city of Canton are at your mercy.”
After hearing from the residents and Cummins’ suggestions of how to avoid the tax increase, several councilmen — who previously advocated the millage rate hike — said they were rethinking things.
“Most everything Mr. Cummins says makes a lot of sense,” said Councilman Bill Bryan. “That’s actually what’s been going through my mind.”
Bryan said it was a “good possibility to leave the millage rate alone.”
“I think we have a lot of work to do (before the vote next Thursday),” he said. “We’ll come to a conclusion this time next week. I think you’ll be pleased as well as you can be with what you see.”
Councilman John Beresford said the city has been doing well without increasing taxes since 2009 as the population and costs were going up. But even still, he said he is reconsidering the increase as well.
“We’re coming with an open mind,” Beresford said. “I know that everybody feels sometimes the council just sits there and does not listen. But we have. What we’re going to try to do is give this city the best services possible with the least amount of impact on your personal income.”
Bryan also said the City Council would consider a suggestion made to the council Thursday to lower the fees charged to Canton residents for storm water.
Ben Key, chairman of Canton’s Storm Water Advisory Board, spoke during the hearing and asked the council to consider reducing the fees, a request Key said the board also made in 2012.
“We made the recommendation last year,” Key said. “You guys didn’t heed it.”
Key said with a high balance of cash on hand and the lowered fiscal 2014 budget of the city’s storm water program, the City Council could reduce the rate charged to residents by 35 percent.
“It just makes economic sense,” he said. “It’d be a good gesture to the taxpayers. It’s time to give (them) a break.”
The City Council is set to take action on the fiscal 2014 budget after the
third public hearing next Thursday.