Charleston's first property tax increase since 1999 easily won City Council's initial approval Thursday, after a public hearing on the city's spending plan for 2008 failed to attract even one person.
"A lot of people either don't think they have a voice, or they are very happy," said Councilman Larry Shirley, who said he had not gotten a single call or e-mail about the budget plan.
Despite the lack of peasants with pitchforks, Mayor Joe Riley went ahead with a presentation full of charts and graphs aimed at showing that the city's net property tax rate has declined sharply since 1990. Reassessments and the local option sales tax account for a significant portion of the rate decrease, but Charleston has during that time gone from having one of the highest property tax rates in the area to having one of the lowest.
The city's property tax rate would rise 4.5 percent next year, if the 2008 budget wins final approval, costing a homeowner with an average-value property worth $175,000 about $23 more in city property tax.
Riley defended the relatively small tax increase as being necessary for improving the Fire Department and related services, such as building inspection, which came under intense scrutiny following the deaths of nine city firefighters in the
Sofa Super Store blaze.
Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson said the city had a clear mandate to improve the Fire Department.
"That makes it possible for me to vote for this budget," she said.
Councilman Henry Fishburne, perhaps the mayor's most vocal critic on the current council, said the increased spending shows that the Fire Department was underfunded previously, which Fishburne said played a role in the fatal fire.
"The facts show that we didn't have the best before, and I don't know how you can deny that," Fishburne said to Riley.
"I do deny it, and I'll deny it right now," Riley shot back.
The mayor said the extra spending is aimed at making the Fire Department the best in the nation, but that doesn't mean it was underfunded previously. Fishburne said the mayor is trying to rewrite history.
The firefighting-related expenses for 2008 include the payroll costs for 18 additional firefighters, four new employees who will work on fire inspections, six more dispatchers, four employees to improve Fire Department training, equipment costs such as new hoses, new vehicles and more.
Fishburne, whose district includes part of the Charleston peninsula south of Broad Street, also said that, unlike Shirley, he's received lots of calls complaining about the proposed tax increase.
The impact of the property tax increase will, of course, depend on how much property one owns.
While the average homeowner would be asked to pay $23 more in 2008, someone who owns a $2 million home would see an increase of $264. Owners of commercial and rental properties, which are assessed at higher rates, would face increases 50 percent larger than those faced by homeowners.
The only other tax or fee that would rise under the 2008 budget is the charge for the first hour of parking at city-owned garages. The first and second half-hour of parking would cost a dollar each, rather than the current 75 cents.
The final vote on the budget is scheduled when City Council next meets, at 5 p.m. Dec. 18 at City Hall, 80 Broad St.
The budget calls for total city spending in 2008 to rise to $143.9 million from $131.6 million. The general fund budget, which pays for day-to-day operating expenses, would rise 7.2 percent, to $123.9 million. The rest of the spending is for "enterprise funds" such as city parking garages, the city auditorium and the baseball stadium, which collectively take in more money than they spend, transferring the excess to the city's general fund.