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City Council holds hearing on tax rate

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Five Fredericksburg residents addressed the City Council during a public hearing on the tax rate on Tuesday, voicing their support for a real estate tax rate increase of at least 6 cents.

Two of the five people recommended the council raise the tax more than the 80 cents per $100 of assessed value that was advertised.

Fauquier Street resident Tom Byrnes called the proposed rate for fiscal 2015 “almost cartoonish,” noting that neighboring Stafford and Spotsylvania counties have higher rates.

Byrnes suggested the additional tax revenue could be used for funding the arts, promoting the city and paying for the Riverfront Park that is currently being designed.

George Beddoe, who lives at The Hills at Snowden development, said he was “literally shocked” when he learned the city was advertising only a 6-cent rate increase.

“I request you to increase the budget by the whole 6 cents or more,” he said, expressing support for things such as a cost-of-living raise for city employees and at least five additional sheriff’s deputies to staff the new courthouse that will open this summer.

Each penny increase in the real estate tax rate generates $360,000.

The current real estate tax rate is 74 cents per $100 of assessed value. If the advertised rate of 80 cents is approved for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, the owner of the median-priced home in the city would pay an additional $144.60 per year.

The median value of a house in the city is $241,000. At the current rate, the tax on that property is $1,783.40.

Two of Tuesday night’s speakers live in the Twin Lake development that is wedged between U.S. 1 and Lafayette Boulevard. Both spoke of the danger of walking along Twin Lake Drive, which is often used by motorists as a cut-through.

They asked the council to support funding to install a sidewalk along the south side of that street, a project with a $630,000 price tag.

“I pay the same tax rate as the people downtown but I don’t get the same service,” said Donald Sparks, who said he has lived in Twin Lake for 41 years. He said he was told when he moved in that there would be curbs, gutters and sidewalks in the neighborhood but they haven’t materialized.

During a work session on the budget before the public hearing, the council worked to whittle down a list of additions council members had proposed to add to City Manager Bev Cameron’s budget proposal.

Last month, Cameron presented a balanced budget with no tax increase. However, he asked the council to look for ways to provide city employees a bonus or cost-of-living adjustment to their pay.

During Tuesday’s work session, council members expressed unanimous support for a 2 percent COLA, which would cost $415,000.

When the council began the work session, they were looking at budget additions totaling nearly $2.8 million, which would have required an 8-cent increase in the real estate tax rate to fund.

The council cannot raise the real estate tax rate above 80 cents per $100 of assessed value unless it re-advertises.

However, the discussion on Tuesday ended with a list of items that would cost about $2.3 million, or just slightly above the 6-cent increase. The council will hold another budget work session next Tuesday.

Key issues up for discussion at that point will include whether to fund the 5.5 positions requested by Sheriff Paul Higgs to staff the new courthouse, which will open for use this summer. Those positions would cost $341,305.

The council also will discuss whether to approve two additional positions for the clerk of the court in the new courthouse. Those positions would cost $108,000.

Vice Mayor Brad Ellis was the most vocal about the need to support those positions in the next budget, noting that he had voted against building the new courthouse because the council didn’t know at that point what it would cost to operate it.

But, he said that once it was built, the council had no choice but to pay to staff it.

Councilman Fred Howe pressed for sidewalk and lighting issues, especially for his ward, which includes Twin Lakes.

No decision was reached on that project but the council discussed possibly starting to fund it in the coming year and providing the remainder of the funding in fiscal 2016.

Cameron had proposed spending $1 million next year to put utilities underground for the Riverfront Park, which is to be created along Sophia Street and the Rappahannock River.

Howe, who operates a utilities company, said it didn’t make sense to start putting the utilities underground until the park’s design is finalized and civil engineering is completed. He suggested reducing the funding for the project for next year, limiting it to covering the cost of engineering in the fiscal 2015 budget.

He then hoped some of the remaining money could go toward the Twin Lake project.

He also offered to provide for free his company’s services to do the design engineering for the electric lines, telephone, cable and natural gas, which he estimated would be valued at about $75,000. Howe, who operates Utility Professional Services Inc., leaves the council when his term ends in June.

The council is also looking for ways to fund three full-time Advanced Life Support positions at a cost of $194,500, positions Cameron said were a priority.

The council also discussed looking for ways to pay for paving of neighborhood streets and $85,000 toward engineering for sidewalk, safety and lighting projects.

In Cameron’s budget proposal, the personal property tax rate remains at $3.40 per $100 of assessed value. However, his budget includes a 9.5 percent increase in water rates and a 7.8 percent increase in sewer rates and an increase in ambulance fees.

In addition, at the council’s April 8 work session, Cameron suggested increasing trash fees as a result of a projected deficit in operations of the Rappahannock Regional Landfill. The plan is to increase the rate for residential collection by $3.20 per month and the rate for high-density residential collection by $2.60 per month. That would bring the rates to $20.85 and $16.70 per month, respectively.

No one spoke during a public hearing Tuesday night on the fees.

Pamela Gould: 540/735-1972


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