Tax hike spurs debate between Wilson councilmen

Fyle says he’ll vote against budget if 2-cent increase isn’t cut

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When the Wilson City Council supported a raise for police officers to fight widespread vacancies last fall, City Manager Grant Goings made it clear the effort would come with a cost. The bill came due during his proposed fiscal year 2018-19 budget that included a 2-cent property tax increase to cover the extra payroll expenses.

“The biggest driver in terms of the budget was the decision to increase salaries. Any time you take an aggressive move like that, the fear is you spend that money and you won’t impact the problem,” Goings swaid during a budget workshop Wednesday morning. “But you have to take that chance anyway and in this case, it has worked.”

Goings said he was open to discussing a way to pay for the police raises without including a property tax increase in the $242,400,260 budget.

“I don’t feel like I’ve made this recommendation lightly, particularly when the public knows where the money is going,” he said. “I hope you haven’t caught too much grief because I’ve posed this increase.”

For more than an hour, the council talked about various aspects of the budget and city services with no talk about the proposed property tax increase. However, near the end of the meeting, Councilman Tom Fyle chimed in with his feeling that the proposal is a regressive tax and unfairly hurts poor Wilsonians as well as businesses.

“I believe we have enough money to pay for the increase in the budget. I can make suggestions to that, but I don’t want to get into a debate where I make a suggestion and other people say that is not a good suggestion or anything like that,” Fyle said. “...If we truly want to have a discussion about not having a tax increase, to work on a solution to this problem and in a good-hearted way, we can do it. There are ways to get rid of a tax increase in this budget.”

Other councilmen did not welcome Fyle’s comment.

“I’m a little disturbed that we’ve been here for an hour and a half and you’re just now dumping this on us,” said Councilman James Johnson, who noted he’d talked privately with Fyle about the property tax increase and suggested Fyle bring it up weeks ago.

Fyle said if the tax hike stays in the budget, he intends to vote against it at the 7 p.m. meeting on June 21, which includes the public hearing on the budget. Councilman Michael Bell urged Fyle to reconsider the budget and his opposition. Tensions continued to rise and Mayor Bruce Rose banged the gavel to restore order in the room.

“You talk about being a budget hawk, but I was the original budget hawk,” Johnson said. “I was Mr. No to most staff, but I always gave my reasons and I feel positive about this budget. I’m going to be voting for it.”

Fyle reiterated his stance against the property tax increase, which would generate $780,000 of the $816,000 for the pay increase.

“I could be outvoted and it is my duty to support the decision of the council,” Fyle said. “I don’t agree with it. I don’t think (a property tax increase is) the best way to go about it and I think there is money in this budget to save and it is has nothing to do with the police officers. They need the troops out there to support our community, that’s fine, but there is other ways in the budget to save money.”

Prior to the heated debate about the property tax increase, the council members had few questions about the budget. Goings gave a general overview of some of the highlights, including the fact that Wilson Energy’s rate is now equal to Duke Energy Progress’ average residential rate.

“The utility funds are as healthy as they’ve been in some time and there is no question Wilson has been the most aggressive of the 32 cities in terms of passing the wholesale rate savings to the citizens’ pockets,” Goings said. “Of the 32 cities, there is only one that has reached rate parity and I attribute that to progressive thinking.”

Load management savings are a significant contributor to reduced electric expenses. While roughly 16,000 residential customers each save a few dollars a month by allowing Wilson Energy to reduce energy consumption during peak use — for example, remotely switching off water heaters — the larger savings for all customers has come from growing the city’s use of large industrial generators for customers such as Bridgestone.

“Every month we run those generators to reduce that peak consumption and that saves us millions of dollars a year,” said Wilson Energy Chief Operating Officer Dathan Shows.

Goings noted that having a residential electric rate of 9.80 cents per kilowatt-hour when Duke’s average residential rate is 9.89 cents/kWh emphasizes the need for customers to be more conscious of energy consumption. On that note, the councilmen discussed ways to better inform residents about the rate reduction as well as individual use.

“My utility bill this month was $451. You know how much my electric portion was? It was $197,” said Councilman Donald Evans, adding that most folks look at the total bill, which includes natural gas, water, sewer and stormwater fees.

Goings said staff will consider ways to change the bill itself to emphasize the individual charges.

For more information on the proposed budget, visit www.wilsonnc.org/budget/.