Goose Creek - Residents of this fast-growing suburb will likely see the first increase in their property taxes in more than three decades to pay for adding 12 firefighters next year.
The planned tax hike - amounting to $32 next year on a $200,000 owner-occupied home and another $40 in 2016 - will come up for approval Tuesday when the Goose Creek City Council discusses its $37 million budget for 2015. The tax increase had unanimous support at a council workshop.
Residents also would be paying more for water, with the city planning to raise the average monthly water bill to about $27 by 2016 to fund its share of upgrades to the Santee Cooper Regional Water System, install waterlines and improvements to the water treatment plant.
Longtime Mayor Michael Heitzler said the council was faced with either cutting services or raising taxes.
"We have gone 34 years without a property tax increase ... but now lives and property are at stake," he said.
While residents will have a chance to comment at next week's council meeting, several interviewed this week agreed that a tax increase was overdue in a city that has seen its population grow about 3 percent every year for the past 20 years.
The population of Goose Creek, which stretches about 14 miles from the Cooper River to the west of Carnes Crossroads, is almost 40,000, according to 2013 census estimates.
"Of course I hate to see my taxes go up. Doesn't everybody?" said resident Herb Parker. "We're growing and growth brings needs. I'm just thankful that we haven't had an increase in this long. I guess we're due."
The last time the city raised property taxes was in 1980 - during Ronald Reagan's first term as president - when it was used to hire more police officers, according to City Administrator Dennis Harmon.
Now the city needs about $600,000 to pay the salaries of three four-man crews of firefighters and EMTs, who will be hired midyear to man the new station being built on Old Mount Holly Road. The full year's cost in 2016 will be $1.2 million.
A second station, which will serve as the department's headquarters, is under construction across the railroad tracks from the current headquarters on Button Hall Road. When it is complete, the staff will move to the new site and the old building will be torn down.
The total price tag for the stations is about $13.4 million funded by a $7 million loan and about $5.8 million from public financing for redevelopment and community improvement projects. The city's loan payments are about $700,000 annually.
The city's proposed budget is "status quo as far as services go," said Heitzler, who was first elected mayor in 1978, two years before taxes were last increased. "We are doing what we need to do to keep services what they are now."
Besides the 12 firefighters, it also includes three new positions: a sanitation equipment operator, an information technology analyst and an evidence custodian for the Police Department. All are needed because of the city's growth, Heitzler said.
Officials expect growth to continue, with new neighborhoods such as Carnes Crossroads, a 2,300-acre mixed-use community near the intersection of the same name, predicted to bring 12,000 new residents when finished. Taxes and economic development were a main issue in the nonpartisan mayoral race in April, in which Heitzler received 65 percent of the votes in the largest voter turnout in the town's history.
Heitzler said the city's growth was "an ideal pace," and commercial development would come eventually.
But his opponent, Councilman Jerry Tekac, the first to challenge Heitzler in 16 years, said the city would have to increase taxes if it did not broaden its tax base by attracting more businesses.
"Our only option is a property tax increase," Tekac said Wednesday. "We knew this was coming, but I was the only one who said it out loud. It's new that we are talking about it, but it should not come as a surprise to anyone. It highlights the need for the city to become more active in business development."
Heitzler said the city's needs will increase as its population grows.
"We have homes going vertical in all sections of our town and we need to have emergency people nearby," he said. The city also needs fire stations at Carnes Crossroads and Liberty Hall, he said.
Earlier this year, the city enacted a 2 percent hospitality tax on food and beverages that is expected to pour $1 million annually into the city's coffers.
So far, hospitality tax money has been earmarked for a new parking lot on Westview Boulevard at the bicycle path trail head; gymnastics, aerobics and meeting spaces at the Goose Creek Community Center; and bathrooms on the course at the city-owned Crowfield Golf & Country Club course.
Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.
Captain Mike Althoff ( left) and Jason Smith with the Goose Creek Rural Fire department help control a fire that started in Pineland Heights in Goose Creek on June of 2011.×
Firefighters Andrew Lund (from left),John Ballenger and Chet Melton help load 400 feet of 5-inch hose back onto the truck after responding to a kitchen fire Wednesday night in Goose Creek. The City Council plans to hire a dozen firefighters to man a new station on Old Mount Holly Road that will open in mid-2015.×
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