A divided York City Council gave initial approval to a $6.8 million spending plan that calls for a property tax increase and hiring three more people, including a narcotics police officer and a firefighter.
In the 4-2 Sept. 2 vote that followed a lengthy discussion, the council also gave the first of two votes of approval to a $3.3 million utility budget with a 10 percent increase in water and sewer fees.
Mayor Eddie Lee and council member Bill Miller opposed the budget, saying they wanted to keep taxes and city fees down.
“I don’t think the people can afford it right now,” said Miller, who proposed a failed motion in support of a budget with no property tax increase and no new employees.
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However, council members Charles Johnson, Ed Brown, John Shiflet and Denise Lowry supported the measure. Councilman Mike Fuesser was absent.
Johnson, who spoke in favor of the spending plan, said he was concerned about the risk of the city delaying for too long making needed investments such as staffing.
A public hearing and a second and final vote on the budget plan is scheduled 6 p.m. Sept. 16.
The spending plan calls for hiring two full-time public safety workers – a police officer to work on narcotics and a firefighter – as well as a part-time economic development director.
Those hires are proposed to be made halfway through the budget year, in April, to reduce the impact on the budget, which begins Oct. 1.
The plan also calls for a 2.25-mill increase in property taxes. One mill equals $4 in taxes for each $100,000 in taxable value, so the tax increase would mean $9 more in property taxes for the owner of a $100,000 home.
City Manager Charles Helms told the council the utility rate increase would amount to an additional $4.14 a month for the average home, based on usage of 6,000 gallons of water a month.
It also would include a 75-cent monthly increase in the fee for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control due to testing required at the city wastewater treatment plant.
Before the vote, several residents voiced their opinions.
Businessman Mike Wiley opposed a tax increase and any new hires. Wiley argued that the city has too much empty retail space and very little industrial land available for development.
Robert Winkler with the Greater York Chamber of Commerce said the chamber supports a part-time person to work on economic development, saying it would be “a very good investment.”
Winkler disagreed that there is little industrial land available, saying the chamber has identified more than 350 acres for development.
Jim Bradford, who represented the city economic development board created by the council in 2012, also supported the hiring of an economic development director.
Bradford talked about the possibility of an industrial park within the city limits.
He said other economic development officials in York County have advised him that “York has got to have some skin in the game” in regard to economic development.
“It’s got to do what it can to help itself,” Bradford said, referring to the city. “We know there are financial limitations. But we’re in a very competitive situation.”
During the budget discussion, several council members said they were concerned about the impact of a combined property tax and utility rate increase on residents.
“I don’t think people would appreciate a 10 percent increase,” Lowry said about the proposed utility rate increase. Lowry said she would prefer to support a 5 percent rate rise.
Lowry added: “We’re putting a lot on taxpayers.”
However, Helms said the utility rate increase is needed to meet the requirements of the borrowing agreements for city bonds, which he said have not been met the past two years.
In a memo to the council, Helms said the utility fund must show it has water and sewer rates that will generate enough revenue to make payments on the bonds.
Finance director Jackie Mosely told council members the bonds could be called by the bank for immediate repayment if those requirements are not met.
The council agreed in December 2013 to hire another police officer and a firefighter in response to staffing needs in both departments.
At that time, city officials said they would look at increasing staffing in those departments in the next budget cycle.
One of the needs has been a second narcotics officer to work with the police department’s lone drug officer and serve on York County’s multijursdictional drug unit. York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant and 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett have asked the city to add another narcotics officer to step up law enforcement.
Miller spoke in opposition to the spending plan approved by the council, saying the city isn’t bringing in enough revenue.
“We are not at the point economically that the tax revenues are coming in that we need to take care of the budget,” Miller said.
Helms told the council he budgeted about $19,000 for half a year for the part-time economic development director. That includes required employment costs such as Social Security and workman’s compensation, he said.
He said after the meeting that he also budgeted a total of about $40,000 for half a year’s salary for both the full-time police and fire jobs. That cost does not include benefits.
Lee said that before the council approves its budget, it should look at further cutting expenses, including reducing the proposed salary of the economic development director.
“I think there are surely places in the budget that can be adjusted,” Lee said.
However, Shiflet said the council needs to offer a competitive salary for the economic development position. “I think it’s going to be necessary to pay this person something,” he said, “so we get a quality person.”
In other business, the council unanimously agreed to ask the city board of zoning appeals to favorably consider an application for a special exception for a 28-unit Hazelhurst Townhomes on East Liberty Street near the Bank of York.
The planning commission considered the application and recommended that it be denied because the city has too much rental housing and too much subsidized housing.
However, City Attorney William Brice, who reviewed the planning commission decision, asked the council to take action, saying the reasons given were overly general and the area in question is a likely location for such a development.
Helms told the council in a memo that the project would take property that is not being used and build quality townhomes that are estimated to generate at least $60,000 in property tax and utility revenue each year.