New budget represents 8.16% higher tax rate than “revenue neutral” – down from 11.07% higher as proposed by city mgr. originally
A closely-divided Mebane city council opted to shave one cent off the tax rate hike proposed in May by city manager Chris Rollins.
Mebane’s “revenue neutral” tax rate for the 2023-2024 budget year which begins July 1 would have been 34.21 cents, but Rollins recommended a total of 38 cents, 3.79 cents (or 11.07 percent) above the “revenue neutral” level.
On a 3-2 vote Monday night, council members voted to trim the increase by a penny, to 37 cents, or 2.79 cents (8.16 percent) above “revenue neutral.”
The council’s decision followed pleas from a similarly divided electorate, including some senior residents, most of whom pleaded with the council to lower the financial hit they will take; But there was also a smattering of support for all of the expenditures in Rollins’ proposed budget.
Resident Donna Sowder said that the 38-cent tax rate “appears excessive,” and in particular drew attention to Rollins’ proposal to set aside 3 cents of the 38 for a special restricted capital fund to finance three future projects – a new fire station (the city’s fourth) which was estimated to cost $5 million; a new police station, at a cost of $15 million; and a future recreation center with a possible swimming pool that was also estimated to cost $15. Sowder said the fund seemed “a little unnecessary.”
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Mebane residents speak out
Fred Masi urged the council to “hold back” inasmuch as citizens, particularly senior citizens, are “hurting out there.”
John Pendziwater questioned whether the city’s “fast growth is good.” He suggested that “infrastructure should have been done first,” and urged that the budget be “scaled back.”
But Stuart Smith, an appointee to the city’s Racial Equity Advisory Council who was later honored for his service on that board, expressed sympathy with council members who have to make tough budget calls. In particular, Smith said he wanted to see Mebane city employees “get paid what they’re worth.”
Rollins had included a 6 percent raise for city employees, the highest pay raise among local governments – whose rates have ranged from 2 percent in Gibsonville; 3 percent in Elon; 4 percent in Burlington; and 5 percent in Graham and county government.
In addition to the 6 percent increases in salaries for all Mebane city employees (at a cost estimated to be $805,488), another $287,951 was included for potential merit increases.
Colin Cannell, the youngest of the speakers, told the council that what was important to decide was “Who’s Mebane for?” Cannell, who was later appointed to the city’s planning board, cited rising expenses as an additional justification for the budget and tax rate recommended by Rollins.
Council members were also divided in their comments and in the feedback they said they had received from Mebane residents.
Sean Ewing, Montrena Hadley, and Jonathan White cited comments from constituents hard-pressed by the higher revaluations given to their homes and properties. “Some people will lose their homes,” Ewing said.
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Hadley suggested that the tax rate increase was “too excessive,” and said that the most common refrain she heard from constituents was a desire for “balance.” She said most voters recognized that Mebane had many needs, and that they did not oppose funding for everything, but just wanted consideration for some nod to their plight.
White said he had asked for feedback and had gotten more than on any subject during his year-and-a-half on the council.
Ultimately, it was White who made a motion to cut the proposed tax rate for 2023-2024 from 38 cents to 37 cents per $100 valuation. Ewing seconded the motion, and Hadley provided the third vote for lowering the amount.
Council members Katie Burkholder and Tim Bradley voted against White’s motion to lower the new tax rate.
In an interview after the meeting, Burkholder, who was appointed to the council last year to replace Patty Philipps who had moved to the coast and will face voters for the first time as an incumbent this fall, told The Alamance News she believed she had “voted the right way for me.” She said she believed she should do the “right thing not necessarily the popular thing.”
For his part, Bradley said that the budget and the city’s spending are constantly evolving. He said he felt that the projects Rollins had included – both for the immediate future and in the restricted capital fund for three big long-term projects (fire station, police station, and recreation facility) – represented sound planning.
Bradley also commented during the meeting that “among the few comments he had received was concern over the 6 percent increase in both water and sewer rates included in Rollins’ proposed budget. Rollins reiterated that the impact on the average Mebane household (using 4,000 to 5,000 gallons of water) would be about $42.72 per year.
Council members did not change the water or sewer rates, and they were not affected by the penny reduction in the new tax rate.
Mebane’s is the first local municipal budget to be adopted. County commissioners have scheduled a budget work session for tomorrow afternoon, and Burlington is to consider its budget tomorrow night.