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Charleston City Council and Mayor Tecklenburg divided on tax hike for next year

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Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg is proposing the 2019 operating budget on Tuesday, but it could be changed by City Council to add more property taxes. Brad Nettles/Staff/File

Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg is bringing his 2019 spending plan to City Council on Tuesday with a proposed property tax increase, but some council members think it's not enough of a tax hike. Others say there shouldn't be one at all. 

The apparent lack of a consensus is expected to make for an especially tricky approval process.

Creating the annual budget is one of Tecklenburg's main duties as mayor. He can draft a budget with his staff and bring it to council for an up-or-down vote, but he's tried to shift the process over the past two years by seeking council members' input ahead of time.

This year, he created a budget committee with council members, and that has met for about six months. While the process built a consensus on many funding priorities — such as giving city employees a raise — council and the mayor still don't agree on how to carry out those goals. 

As a result, three different budget proposals have emerged, and it's still unclear which one will win out. 

Tecklenburg is proposing a $1.8 million property tax hike, which equates to about $24 more per year on an owner-occupied home valued at $400,000. That extra money would go to the public safety infrastructure fund and would solely pay for the construction of two new fire stations, one on Johns Island and the other on Cainhoy.

The total operating fund of $222.7 million is about $11 million more than last year's, and it includes wage increase for city employees. A 2 percent raise would go into effect in January to cover expected cost-of-living increases, followed by a larger pay bump next summer.

Most on council think the city should spend more money to make sure employees get the entire raise starting in January, but they're split on how to pay for it. 

It would cost about $1.6 million more, and some members favor funding it through another property tax increase, on top of the hike for the new fire stations. That could bring taxpayers' overall increase to $3.6 million, or $48 more for a $400,000 home. 

So, council could theoretically propose an amendment to the mayor's budget to account for the larger tax hike. At the last few budget workshops, Councilmen Gary White and Peter Shahid seemed to be in favor of that. 

Councilman Mike Seekings isn't. He thinks the city could have come up with the money to pay for a full-year wage increase and the new fire stations without raising any taxes. He's not sure how he'll vote at this point.

"We want our property owners to pay more and more in taxes to pay for this stuff, and it’s just not a long-term, sustainable model," he said on Monday. "We should be looking to alternative forms of revenue rather than the property tax."

On the other end of the spectrum, Councilwoman Carol Jackson and Councilman Dudley Gregorie want to go for an even higher tax increase, one that would fund the higher wages, new fire stations, and other things, such as addressing deferred maintenance at city-owned facilities.

"We’ve got 4 million square feet of physical facilities that we need to maintain," Jackson said. 

They want to increase property tax revenue by $4.8 million, or $64 extra for a $400,000 home.

Jackson said she realizes it might be too much for some of the more fiscally conservative members of council, but the city's growth demands more resources. 

"To me, it just makes no sense that we’re staying in a lane that is traditionally conservative," she said. "I just think times like this require new thinking."

The mayor's budget for the stormwater fund, which is a separate pot of money for drainage-related expenses, would grow by $2.2 million to $11.3 million. The increase would be funded by a stormwater fee increase, which is collected on water and sewer bills. The monthly fee, currently $8, would rise to $10.

Most of the budget debate is expected during the Ways & Means Committee, which meets at 4 p.m. in the council chambers at City Hall, 80 Broad St. The council meeting will immediately follow. 

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Reach Abigail Darlington at 843-937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.

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