Infrastructure repairs force Bryson City’s hand on tax hike
Despite cutting more than $50,000 from the town’s budget, Bryson City’s leaders plan to raise property taxes and town fees in the coming fiscal year.
The Bryson City Board of Aldermen has proposed raising the property tax rate by 2 cents starting July 1. The change, if approved, would bring the town’s tax rate to 35 cents per $100 of property value. It would amount to an extra $30 a year in property taxes for the owner of a $150,000 home.
The board plans to put revenue from the additional 2 cents, an estimated $25,000 annually, into a road improvement fund. The town would grow the fund overtime.
“We’ve got a lot a streets that could really use a lot of work,” said Bryson City Mayor Tom Sutton. “It takes a lot of money to pave streets.”
The town does not get enough from the state for road repairs to cover all its needs, according to town leaders. A number of pothole-riddled roads within the town limits need fixing.
“I can’t disagree with (the board) that we need more money for roads,” said Town Manager Larry Callicutt, although his original budget did not include a property tax increase.
However, Callicutt wonders whether people will turn out for a public hearing on the budget and tax increase in mid-June.
“I have yet to find that people want taxes to go up,” said Callicutt.
Although tax increases are never popular, Alderman Tom Reidmiller said he thinks people will understand and accept the board’s reasoning.
“I have had many comments on the streets, and I think people would be in favor of setting aside a little money to fix the streets,” he said.
In addition to a property tax increase, the town’s water and sewer fees will go up slightly as well. For residents in the town limits, the monthly rates will increase by 25 cents; for residents living outside town, the rate will go up $1.50.
The board is following a plan from 2009 that outlined how much Bryson City’s water and sewer rates needed to appreciate each year so that the system could start paying for itself instead of using property taxes to subsidize water and sewer line repairs.
“Theoretically, your water system should be self-supporting, but my understanding is most are not,” Sutton said, adding that small, incremental increases are better than a larger one later.
“It will allow us to continue to maintain our system,” he said. “It’s not going to bring in a lot of money.”
Bryson City has struggled with an aging water pipe system, some of which were installed in the 1920s and desperately need replacing.
“The operation of the water and sewer system is still not up to standards due to the age of the system and additional requirements mandated by the state of North Carolina. This will continue to be a problem until the system is rebuilt,” Callicutt wrote in a letter to the town board explaining the proposed fee increase.
While the water pumped into the system is good, about 25 to 30 percent of it is lost due to leaks, and the town must eat that cost. And although the additional money from the increased fees will not rectify the problem, it will keep it at bay.
However, Bryson City’s water infrastructure may soon benefit from a portion of a $2 million grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation, a nonprofit that helps rural, economically challenged counties.
Losing a cash cow
Bryson City had to cut its budget this year after the town lost a large chunk of revenue — a nearly $100,000 decline in dividends from liquor sales at its ABC store.
The town ABC store was once the supplier of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort on the Qualla Boundary. The reservation is dry, but the casino is not. The tribe previously didn’t have its own ABC operation and so the casino purchased all of its liquor from the Bryson City ABC store.
However, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which owns the casino, started its own ABC operation last March and no longer went through Bryson City.
“Now, the casino has their own ABC, so we are not going to be dealing with them quite as much,” Sutton said.
The town received its last payout from the tribe this fiscal year. Next year, the town only expects to earn about $24,000 from its liquor sales, down $117,500 from this year. The payouts from the tribe usually came sporadically, which is why they seem like random influxes of money when viewed on paper, according to Callicutt.
The town looked for budget cuts to help offset the loss. It switched insurance providers, saving nearly $28,000 in expenses. It also saved $30,000 because the town doesn’t need to buy a new police car this year.
However, the police department will add a new officer, going from 8 to 9 officers.
“We really need more than one, but one will do for now,” Reidmiller said.
Having so few officers makes it difficult for anyone to schedule vacation time or take sick days when need.
Want to weigh in?
The Bryson City Board of Aldermen is holding a public hearing at 5:30 p.m., Monday, June 17, at town hall to gather citizen feedback on the proposed budget, copies of which are available at town hall.