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Wednesday, 13 May 2015 14:35

Sylva budget haggling concludes

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sylvaA stalemate over whether to raise property taxes in Sylva ended last week with the majority of town board members opting to take money out of the town’s reserve fund to cover a $140,000 projected shortfall in next year’s budget.

But with some town board members on the fence heading into last week’s budget discussion, it wasn’t clear which way things would go until the last minute.

“It is easy to say raise taxes. There are people that raising taxes is a problem for because they are already living hand to mouth,” said town board member Harold Hensley.

But Mayor Maurice Moody said in his 18 years on the town board, the property tax rate has only been raised once, and that was 12 years ago.

“We are doing a good job on the basics but it has made it difficult to do extra things,” Moody said. “We are somewhat limited. We have accomplished a good bit but we have not done everything I would have liked to see done.”

The final breakdown was:

• Town Commissioners Barbara Hamilton and Lynda Sossaman supported a 2-cent property tax increase. So did Mayor Moody, but he only votes in the event of a tie.

• Town Commissioners Harold Hensley and Danny Allen, who have consistently voted for more conservative budgets during their tenures on the town board, were against the property tax increase. They were joined in the end by Mary Kelley Gelbaugh, who was the swing vote in the debate.

As it came down to the wire, Gelbaugh pitched a last-minute compromise of a one-cent tax increase instead of two cents, but the idea failed to gain traction.

This isn’t the first year Sylva has relied on its reserve fund to make ends meet. In fact, Sylva leaders have taken nearly $750,000 from reserves over the past seven years, usually for extras of some sort that there otherwise wasn’t room for in the budget.

This past year reserves took a large hit of $250,000 to buy a public parking lot downtown beside the popular Bridge Park venue.

Hensley said he didn’t see a problem with drawing down the reserves as long as they’re there.

“It’s money that has been saved out of left over taxes. So it is still the people’s money,” Hensley said. “You do have a certain point you can’t pull it below, but until you pull it down to that point, I don’t support raising taxes.”

Town Manager Paige Dowling said this is the last year the town could responsibly take from reserves, however, as the remaining cushion of about $2.1 million is needed to ensure the town has adequate cash flow for its budget of $5.3 million.

The town board pledged that this year would be the last they took from reserves.

“We all agree it is not fiscally responsible to continue dipping into our fund balance,” Gelbaugh said.

Gelbaugh pointed out that the money the town took from reserves was for single, one-time expenses — not the routine sort of costs that the town would just be staring at again next year and once again wondering how to pay for.

“We had some major purchases that could no longer be delayed and in the end I felt that using the fund balance for capital equipment was justifiable,” Gelbaugh said.

Some town board members questioned whether the equipment was truly needed or just wanted.

“If you have to raise taxes you have to raise them but don’t raise taxes for your want list,” Hensley said.

That “want list” included a new knuckleboom claw truck that collects brush, limbs and yard waste from the side of the street in residential neighborhoods. The existing one is getting old and could break soon, and its replacement has been delayed three years already. The knuckleboom truck will cost around $140,000, about the amount being taken from reserves.

Allen said he would have agreed to raise taxes if there had been some concessions on the spending side.

“I was not for raising taxes because I didn’t get enough cuts out of our budget,” Allen said. “I know it takes money to run a town, but we need to cut things before we go to the taxpayers.”

Allen questioned the replacement plan for police cars. The town ideally buys three new police cars each year and sells off the oldest ones. But the past two years, only two cop cars were purchased. This year, it’s back up to three, but Allen felt like the town should stay at two again.

He also questioned why the town isn’t selling off three cop cars since it is buying three. Instead, the town will only sell off two — bringing the total number of police cars up from 12 to 13 for 15 officers, creeping closer toward a one-to-one car-to-officer ratio. Allen says he thinks officers can share cars since they aren’t all on shift at the same time.

“Every year there is something they ‘need’ or have ‘got’ to have,” Allen said of the police department.

The town board has an election this year, with four of the six town board seats on the ballot. The mayor’s seat is up for election, and Moody has already announced he won’t run again.

The seats currently held by Allen, Hensley and Sossamon are also up for election.

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