Citizens ask Council to "hold the line"

Augusta property owners will see a 3.43 percent increase in their city property taxes after the City Council approved the budget for their new fiscal year at Monday’s meeting.
The proposed 2018 Budget was arrived at by taking input and direction at several public budget work sessions.
Last year’s actual tax rate was 51.978 mills.    The amount of property taxes to be levied for 2018 totals $3,197,550, which represents an increase to 55.414 mills.  The proposed mil levy is a 3.43 increase from 2017.  The increase would mean a $3.29 per month increase for a home valued at $100,000.
“This increase can mostly be attributed to the addition of debt payments for the new levee system, increased insurance costs/employee benefits, the Council’s continued support for COLA and merit pay adjustments to keep pace with market wages, and the addition of a second vehicle in the purchase rotation for the Public Safety Department,” stated City Manager Josh Shaw.

2018 Mill Levy Impact
• Reinstate Police Vehicle Rotation Plan
• Employee Wages 3.00% merit increases; 1.0%
• Employee Healthcare Costs
• Corps Levee Debt
Residents speak out
The public hearing for the budget proposal was opened and local businessman and realtor Mark Sudduth addressed the Council.
“I’ve been in real estate in this town for 27 years and I’m a big advocate for Augusta.  It’s a good place.  However, taxes are starting to be a real issue.  The world is changing,” Sudduth continued, “I know this is a tough decision and I know things have to happen, but raising taxes won’t help us.  I’m asking you not to raise taxes - make cuts...I know that you’ve held the line in years past, but I deal with the issue daily.  Raising taxes won’t get people to move here or build here...I’m asking you to hold the line.”
Sudduth also asked the Council to research Augusta’s electric rates compared to other communities’ rates.
Myrna Rogers, local resident, also spoke to the Council.
“Our income has not increased.  Social Security and Medicare have not increased their benefits.  Have you checked the demographics of the senior citizens living in town?  Have you considered the senior citizens living in single family households?”
Resident, former state legislator and county commissioner Peggy Palmer addressed the Council, as well.
“I’ve done budgets at state and county levels.  Augustans can’t afford any more taxes.  You rely solely on your staff for information.  The county gave raises but didn’t raise taxes.  Send that message to your administrators,” Palmer continued, “Last year you wanted 10 mills and now you want 4 more.  Who does that?...You can’t get people to move  here any more - they won’t buy houses.  Look at the big picture.  People move to towns with lower taxes...Help the consumers and listen to your constituency.  We put you there.”
Councilor Ron Reavis advised that the Council asks the staff for alternative proposals.
“We asked about not filling a recent personnel vacancy, but the savings aren’t significant.”
“The budget is prepared in response to the Council’s requests.   Options are discussed at the work session level every single year.  We want people to understand that we don’t shove a budget in front of you,” explained Shaw.
Resident Tom Palmer asked the Council to focus on raising the population and not the taxes.
“You should focus on getting the population growing.  You can be a good city manager or mayor as long as you have money, but what makes you good is how good you are at handling the expenses. Get people here.  Find solutions and halt the expenses,” Palmer stated.
“Holding the line has caused issues with the crumbling infrastructure.  We don’t want to pass it on.  We’re challenged to be creative and our staff has been very creative in fixing things like our sewers without raising taxes,” Councilor Cale Magruder said.
Councilor Reavis thanked everyone for their input and opinions.
“There is a fine line between doing the best thing for the city and curbing expenses.  We’ve looked at all the issues.  Coming up with big cuts is tough,” Reavis said.
Councilor Jason Lowery spoke next.  
“I don’t agree that no one wants to move here.  I’ve heard real estate agents begging for houses in Augusta to sell. Last year we relaxed some things concerning NRP and we were told by some of the same people who are speaking out now, that there would be more building and improvements.  It’s not happening...I am a taxpayer and I don’t like paying taxes, but I know that I can call 911 and get immediate help.  We need to keep those good people here.”
Lowery also reminded everyone that there had been three or four work sessions with no interest from the public.   
“Mr. Sudduth stated earlier that this region has not recovered from the crash in 2008 - well, how can you expect the city to?” Councilman Justin Londagin asked.  “I’ve been told that if you put a $150,000 house up for sale in Augusta that it will be gone in a week.  People will buy and spend where they want to.  We do listen and we  do care.  We pay taxes, too.  
The public hearing was closed.  The Council unanimously approved the proposed 2018 Budget with the 3.436 increase.

More from Monday’s meeting in Saturday’s TG edition.