Mayor Teddy Harris and council members Rick Buff and Hal Gray voted the measure through. Joyce Wall was not present for the vote and Cindy Bradshaw voted against the ordinance.
Harris’ proposal is a retreat from a campaign pledge to eliminate the “unpopular fee,” as he called it when he ran for the mayor’s post. Harris was elected in November 2011 and became mayor January 2012.
The move secured a 9.035 millage rate for the city portion of property taxes and the general operating budget (ordinance 466) for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, which received the same 3-1 vote.
“If in the near future we find any funds available, we should go back and address the library and (raises for) city employees,” Buff said. Rossville is among the cities in the county that could possibly gain from LOST (local-option sales tax) negotiations that have been ongoing for two month.
Only a handful of people were present at the meeting. Several residents posed a few questions but the meeting remained much shorter than two previous meeting to discuss proposals by Harris that aimed to raise the millage rate.
Larry Rose Jr. questioned if the original intent of the administration fee should have been fairly applied to all residents of Rossville. The fee was tacked on to water bills in 2002 by city officials, partially to raises revenue for the city police and firefighter departments.
It has been paid by 1,500-1,600 water customers with Tennessee American Water Co. Citizens who live in apartments or nursing homes did not pay the fee, as only a single $6.50 fee was billed at those commercial residences.
“There is no economically feasible way to collect from apartments,” Harris said.
“You’re letting one-hundred-and-ten people down at the Rossville apartments and about sixty (people in the apartments) on Hogan Road get a free ride,” resident William Woods said.
Work session: Sept. 17
The approval follows a work session in which the continuation of the administration fee was the only option discussed after two separate proposals of property tax raises by Harris.
“The only thing we can do is go with the budget with no tax increases,” Harris told to council members during the work session at the city’s Civic Center on Monday night, Sept. 17. “Whatever we do here, we cannot have a tax increase because of time constraints. Since we are up against those constraints, we will have to keep that fee in place.”
The initial proposed property tax increase of 3.655 mills was meet with fierce opposition by citizens, which continued even as officials reduced to an increase of 1.91 mill during the second proposal that ultimately failed to get a motion by council members.
Under Harris’ renewed plan on Sept. 20, residents on the city’s septic system will receive a monthly bill for the $6.50. Details are being finalized and may allow for a lump-sum payment for the year.
The fee will be paid by every residence that has city sewer service, approximately 1,600 existing sewer customers and providing as much as $124,800 in revenue.
Nearly all of the council members were on board with the idea within a matter of minutes, except for Cindy Bradshaw.
She viewed it as “kicking the can down the road for another year” by continuing the practice of taping the city reserve funds. Bradshaw had wanted to go through each line item to further trim the budget and review suggestions from the public; however, no one else did.
The final vote will take place seven days after the city’s fiscal year starts.
The budget crisis started with a $227,000 deficit, which was reduced by $122,000 in budget cuts, according to Harris.
More than half of the budget cuts came by eliminating the recreation department, which is now operated by a volunteer association.
Harris maintains that small cuts were made to each department prior to the budget negotiations with council members.
Revenues from fines have also declined, with the city court receiving 14 percent less than two years, for a loss of more than $100,000 in the past two years, according to Harris.
City officials are projecting to collect $350,000 in fines next year despite only having collected $299,166 during 11 months of the current fiscal year.
The city has also approved NCourt, a credit provider, which will allow court fine payments on credit cards for an additional service fee.
Council member Joyce Wall defended over-estimating the projected revenue for the following year, which was done to reduce the proposed property tax (millage) increase from 3.655 mills to 1.91 mills during the previous budget that failed.
“We may get it and we may not,” Wall said about the projected revenues for the upcoming year.
“We should do projected budgeting based on historical data and I do not see it here based on my experience,” Bradshaw said.
Harris and other council members pounced on Bradshaw’s “experience” as a political newcomer, despite the city’s financial woes of deficit spending since 2006.
“I think we’re in pretty good shape,” Harris said.
“Why would we have raised taxes two years ago when we had eight or nine hundred thousand in reserves,” councilmember Rick Buff said.
Bradshaw actually sought to keep costs down to avoid possibly raising taxes in the future, even suggesting that layoffs or furloughs may be necessary.
Buff is skeptical that any more could be cut from the budget, and is opposed to touching employee salaries and benefits.
Harris demanded to know whom she wanted to get rid of stating he believed the city actually needed a few more employees, specifically police officers.
Transferring $105,980 from reserve funds, which Harris was originally opposed to using, is projected to balance the budget.
It will leave $504,020 in the reserve fund, $23,500 beneath the recommended amount of three months of city operating costs as suggested by the Georgia Municipal Association.
The Rossville Library funding was also cut by nearly 20 percent to $54,000.
“”We’re facing a harder decision in the next three to four years than we were facing on this one,” Bradshaw said, with expectations of increases in health care, payroll and pension costs.