Property owners in Charleston can expect to pay about 1 percent more on their tax bills next year after City Council agreed on Tuesday to raise wages for city workers and to build two new fire stations.
The owner of a $400,000 house currently pays about $3,900 in total property taxes and would pay $48 more to the city next year. The city expects to bring in $3.6 million from the tax hike.
About half of that will solely go to the public safety infrastructure fund and would pay for the construction of two new fire stations, one on Johns Island and the other on Cainhoy. Those are the major growth areas for Charleston, and their fire stations are undersized and undermanned to accommodate the influx of people and properties.
The other half will let the city raise its workers' minimum wage from $11.50 to $12, which would adjust wages throughout the workforce beginning in January. The raise only applies to workers outside the police and fire departments, whose employees were given raise increases in recent years.
Mayor John Tecklenburg wanted a smaller tax increase, totaling about $1.8 million, which would have equated to about $24 more per year for the owner of a $400,000 home. His plan included the new fire stations and higher worker wages, but most of the pay increases would've come next summer instead of January.
No council members agreed with his approach. They felt workers should get a pay raise as soon as possible, given that the city estimates it will have lost about 18 percent of its overall workforce by the end of this year, excluding sworn officers in the police and fire departments.
That’s a relatively high turnover rate compared to other nearby municipalities.
Councilman Gary White, who has been on council for more than a decade, has never voted for a tax increase. But he was among the 10 council members who supported the amendment to the mayor's budget to raise more taxes.
"I think it's a modest increase," he said. "The reality is if we don’t do it now, then we’ll have to do it later."
Councilmen Mike Seekings and William Dudley Gregorie voted against it but for very different reasons. Seekings said he supported the proposed spending plan but didn't want to raise taxes to pay for it.
"I don’t buy into the premise that it inexorably has to be tied to a property tax increase," he said.
The total operating fund of $224 million is about $12 million more than last year’s spending plan.
Gregorie, on the other hand, wanted the city to raise another $1.2 million to fulfill more of the city staff's requests, such as additional positions, training and equipment.
"I think that if we are going to be consistent, particularly as it relates to staff, then I think we need to also make sure that this budget also gives them the tools and the training necessary for them to be even better employees," he said.
Councilwoman Carol Jackson also made a case for the higher tax increase but ultimately voted with the rest of council.