Sylva moves toward tax rate increase
During an April 29 work session, four of Sylva’s five board members signaled their approval of a draft budget totaling $4.9 million, 18 percent more than the budget approved last June. It includes a tax rate increase of 1.5 cents per $100 of property value and $400,000 in America Rescue Plan funding.
“I also want to show my appreciation for the staff, for all they’ve done,” said Mayor Lynda Sossamon, adding her approval to that of the board’s voting members. “I know this is hard, and I’m sure they count every penny, because they want to not charge residents any more than we have to, but then again I feel like everything here is justifiable.”
The budget process comes on the heels of a countywide property revaluation that bumped Sylva’s value by 14.5 percent. Had the tax rate stayed the same, Sylva would have received about $345,000 more in property tax revenues, but rising costs quickly ate up that capacity, including $177,000 in salary and benefit increases to existing personnel.
Requests for additional positions in the police and public works departments are driving the proposed 1.5-cent increase. Police Chief Chris Hatton asked for two more officers on his force of 14, and Public Works Director Jake Scott requested a part-time employee to help with trash collection. The rate increase would fund the sanitation job and one of the two requested officer positions.
While most board members support the new positions and agree that a tax increase is the best way to fund them, Commissioner David Nestler disagrees on both counts. He believes that the data does not support a need for more officers, and while he concedes that a tax increase is the only way to fund a new officer, he maintains there is enough fat in the budget to shave half a cent off the proposed rate increase.
“We’re seeing an increase in our budget regardless from (the revaluation), and I do not think we should raise taxes in addition to people having to pay more,” he said. “I think there’s enough left in this budget to come up with the money for a part-time sanitation worker.”
In particular, Nestler questioned the fact that the line item for police overtime is $10,000 higher than the amount listed in the current year’s budget.
“One of the big selling points of this tax hike was that the amount we were spending for overtime on our police officers was essentially what it would cost to add a position,” he said. “But I’m seeing in our expenses that we did not decrease our budget for overtime expenditures for officers. We increased it by $10,000.”
Dowling replied that it will take time to hire the new officer and fill currently vacant positions, and those new hires will have to go through training — other employees must fill those shifts in the meantime. The existing force is also behind on training due to COVID-related delays. Additionally, she said, the next fiscal year will include two Greening Up the Mountains festivals because the April event was postponed to August for 2021. That event adds an extra shift for every officer in the force.
“I think that’s a decrease we’ll see in the future,” she said.
“You don’t want to get caught short, and hopefully we’re not going to have to use it,” added Commissioner Ben Guiney. “I would say there’s a good chance we would have used even more overtime if we didn’t hire another officer.”
“I get your point — budget for it and if we don’t use it, that’s great,” Nestler replied. “Except that we’re billing taxpayers for it.”
Nestler then questioned a series of smaller line items, seeking to find $25,000 of unnecessary spending to offset half a cent from the proposed rate increase.
Every year the town budgets $100,000 for streetlights, he said, and every year it spends significantly less — this year’s total will likely come to about $80,000. But Dowling said that the town is adding new lights to Mill Street this year, and it’s unknown how much cost they’ll add.
Among other line items, Nestler also questioned the $2,500 for board and mayor travel expenses and $3,000 for the Main Street Association retreat. The pandemic brought those expenses to zero for the current year, and Nestler asked whether it was likely that travel would resume in the coming year. Dowling replied that she expected many of the trainings to move back to an in-person format.
However, Nestler was alone in his belief that the budget could stand to lose $25,000. The remaining board members told Dowling they supported the draft she’d presented, including the rate increase and new hires.
Dowling will deliver a formal budget presentation during the board’s May 13 meeting, and commissioners will vote on a final version June 10 following a public hearing at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 27.