Huntsville residents speak out against proposed property tax increase and pay raise for city employees.
For the second Huntsville City Council Meeting in a row, citizens showed up at City Hall Tuesday night to protest the City’s proposed 7% property tax increase and the proposed 7.5% pay increase for the City Staff. They also criticized the
proposal to divert a minimum of $625,000 in Property Tax money every year from now on for economic development.
Linda Thompson spoke first in the Public Hearing seeking clarification of what would be on the ballot on the Economic Development subject. After some discussion she was told that there would be one “Yes or No” proposition to
allow the City to create an Economic Development Corporation and to fund that Corporation with property tax funds.
George Russell talked about what he sees as lack of fairness in the tax appraisal system. He cited several examples of alleged inequities in appraised values all taken, he said, directly from the tax records. He then provided the City, with copies of four “White Papers” containing the statistics taken from the tax records that he said backed up his claims.
Former County Judge and HISD President Charles Wagamon said, “Last time I came and talked to you about a flat tax rate. And I hope I impressed upon you that if you adopt a flat tax rate, you are in the business of increasing tax revenues every year. And if you don’t get that picture, I think you need to go back and study taxation 101. Because the appraisal district is not responsible for raising your taxes. It’s you, right up here, who set the rates.”
Switching to the economic development proposal on the ballot to set up an Economic Development Corporation paid for by property tax dollars, Judge Wagamon said, “If it passes, what we’re going to do is take away from the people who have borne the sweat of the labor in our town, and give incentives to people who are going to come in and be in competition with them. Now, that doesn’t sound like a very smart idea.”
Local business owner Jerry DeWitt said, “Mr. Woodward, you just said that you haven’t set a tax rate yet, — but, if you had just set a tax rate of 38 cents we wouldn’t even have to have a public meeting. So, you might as well say you have set the rate. If you didn’t want to listen to what we have to say and complain about our taxes, you could have set the rate at 38 cents and we’d all be done.”
Citizen Leroy Hilton talked about personnel costs. He recalled that it had been previously said that our employee salaries were being raised to put us comparable to other cities our size. He then said, “My way of thinking is that we don’t have to be comparable to them. We’re not in competition with other cities our size. We are in competition for jobs with people in our own neighborhood. The salaries of City employees should be set based on what the labor rates are, not based on what some other City’s is based.”
Councilmember Keith Olson then referred to a public document that was submitted to the City Council by the City Manager that had City taxes at lower than the effective rate, which would actually lower taxes, including all of the things proposed in one package. Councilmember Allen demanded that the document be made available to the citizens on the City website and Mayor Woodward directed the City Secretary to do that.
Citizen Bonnie Smith said that the appraisal district came out to her house and raised her appraisal $70,000, in spite of the fact that nothing had changed in 5 years. Then she said, “I also know, I used to work for a city, that when you have all this development come in and you start giving them all tax incentives, that’s costing us money.”
Councilmember Joe Emmett suggested that the Council invite Raymond Kiser (the Chief Appraiser) to come down and explain his methods, but the Mayor said that the entities need to maintain their separation.
Councilmember Allen then suggested that the City has handled this subject wrong and now everyone is confused. He suggested that the City “back up, and regroup and just be honest with the citizens. – – “If we can’t be honest with the
citizens on a property tax increase, how are we going to tell them that yeah, we’re going to get out there next week and fix that hole in your street.”
Mayor Woodward disagreed with Councilmember Allen saying “I think we have handled this legally, the proper way and followed every rule.”
Councilmember Allen responded by saying that the only reason the city held the two public hearings was that they were required to do so by the State if there was a chance that a tax rate higher than the Effective Rate would be adopted. Allen also noted that even if the City lowers the tax rate to the Effective Rate, the City will still take in more tax money than it did last year because of the growth in the last year.
Marion Wagamon said that the Council needed to make the tax rate justifiable by making clear what the Council wants to spend the money for. She noted that many people here are really hurting so if you want them to sacrifice it needs to be for necessities, like fixing the streets. “When we read in the paper that you’re using it for signage, for another study, for a rebate for businesses that are coming in here, that is what angers people, ‘Where is my money going? I don’t mind sacrificing, but we are very poor here, and we have to stay within whatever means we have.’ That’s what people need to have clarified. We’re not into buying fur coats, we’re going to buy a cloth coat. And that’s what we’re asking. Whatever we can afford please stay within it.”
The Huntsville City Council will vote on the proposed budget at their next scheduled meeting on September 15th.