A Charleston real estate broker who spearheaded the statewide effort to replace property taxes with higher sales taxes on Tuesday urged City Council members to reject a property tax increase, but they approved the budget anyway.
The city's 2008 budget will include the first property tax increase since 1999.
Mayor Joe Riley said the increase is necessary to pay for improvements to the Fire Department and related services, such as building inspections.
"We clearly see raising the property tax as a last resort," he said.
The city's $143.9 million spending plan includes $2.4 million for fire service improvements and $2.6 million in new taxes and fees. In addition to the property tax increase, the city is raising parking garage charges for the first two half-hours of parking, from 75 cents to a dollar.
Riley gave council members several presentations, complete with charts and graphs, to make the point that this is the city's second property tax increase since 1990. Property taxes make up about a third of the city budget.
According to Riley, the majority of city residents will pay less in Charleston property taxes in 2008 than they did in 1990. Tax rate reductions during that time resulted partly from the institution of the local-option sales tax.
The city's property tax rate will rise 4.5 percent next year, to 77.1 mills. For the homeowner with an average-value property worth $175,000, the tax increase will amount to about $23.
Only a handful of people showed up at City Council to oppose the tax increase, which several council members took as a sign that people weren't particularly upset. Emerson Read, chairman of nohometax.org, was among those who were upset.
"You're mostly going to be hurting low-income and elderly people," Read told City Council.
Read's group, formed by Charleston area-residents with high-value homes, led the anti-tax effort that resulted in the state's decision to eliminate the property taxes that fund school operations, and to fund them instead by increasing the sales tax rate by 40 percent.
Tax bills reflecting that change went out two months ago.
"Even now, with the relief we have gotten, taxes are much too high," said Read, who saved about $3,400 this year because of the property tax cut but still got a bill for more than $6,800 on his South of Broad home, county records show.
Also speaking against the tax increase was Arthur Lawrence, president of the West Side Neighborhood Association.
"Taxes, taxes, taxes," he said. "Before you know it, there won't be anyone but wealthy people living on the peninsula."
Councilmen Henry Fishburne and Larry Shirley opposed the budget, which was approved 11-2.
Councilman Paul Tinkler told Read that property taxes add stability to municipal budgets.
The property tax approved Tuesday will be reflected in bills that go out in the fall of 2008.