Politics & Government

Council passes budget of $1.82 billion by 1 vote

The City Council narrowly approved a $1.82 billion budget Monday night that is almost identical to what City Manager Curt Walton recommended in May.

The budget increases council-member pay by 27 percent and holds an affordable-housing bond referendum to $10 million, a third of what advocates for the poor had requested.

The budget is $200 million more than last year's, but does not include a property tax increase. Currently the city's tax rate is 45.86 cents per $100 valuation – about $917 annually for the owner of a $200,000 home.

The 6-5 vote Monday crossed party lines and hinged largely on two issues: the salary increase and the affordable-housing bonds.

Democrats Warren Turner, James Mitchell, Nancy Carter, Patsy Kinsey and Michael Barnes, and Republican Warren Cooksey voted for the budget.

Republicans Edwin Peacock, John Lassiter and Andy Dulin voted with Democrats Susan Burgess and Anthony Foxx against it.

“I thought the compensation was excessive and I thought the affordable housing bond should be bigger,” Burgess said after the vote.

Cooksey said he opposed the raise, but said it was “way too small in the scope of a $1.8 billion budget” to influence his vote.

The pay raise brings council members' annual compensation from $23,463 to $29,900. It includes a new, $4,000 car allowance that proponents say will help offset the rising cost of gas.

Walton has said he proposed the raise to bring council compensation more in line with similarly sized cities. Supporters on council also say the raise will allow people of lower incomes to consider the office.

Opponents argued that the cost of the raise – about $77,000 – could have been better spent elsewhere. Two council members, Foxx and Cooksey, have said they will decline the increase in their own paychecks.

The budget also includes $619,000 to up wages of some of the city's lowest-paid workers, who make less than the market rate for their jobs. City workers will get an average 3.5 percent raise.

Burgess and Foxx proposed alternatives to increase the $10 million affordable-housing bonds, but neither got enough support.

“We have people in this community who are struggling every single day simply to maintain a roof over their heads,” Foxx said.

The referendum will be on the ballot in November along with several other items that will make up the biggest city bond package in more than a decade: $227.2 million.

Most – $170.2 million – is proposed for road improvements to relieve congestion. Another $47 million is proposed for neighborhood improvements, including $16 million for infrastructure work at Eastland Mall. City leaders hope a developer will invest in the property and build a mix of retail and housing.

Also included in the fiscal 2009 budget is about $1 million in new police jobs: $435,000 for five positions in the police department's crime lab and $456,000 for eight positions in the 911 Communications Center.