Last week in a meeting that stretched on for over four hours the Smithfield City Council listened for nearly two and a half of those hours to residents voice concerns over a proposed 19.6% increase in property tax; before vowing to go back and see if there were places that they could make any deeper cuts. Wednesday night in a council meeting held at the Senior Center it took the council only an hour to offer explanations and thoughts before motions were made, seconded, and unanimously approved the increase.
Smithfield Mayor Darrell G. Simmons began the meeting by explaining that in March of every year the council is tasked to set the budget for the coming year based on expenditures and anticipated revenues. Simmons said, “This year we found ourselves in a down year, and were $350,000 out of budget. As a council we trimmed $250,000 out of the budget but that still left a shortfall of $100,000.” With declining sales tax revenues from businesses that are not keeping pace in an ever toughening economy the city has to look elsewhere to fill the gap in the general fund. The council looked at things that they could cut and felt that the only things left to cut are those things that create the environment and standard of living that the residents have become accustomed to. Simmons mentioned items covered by the general fund like the senior center, parks, and water to keep those parks green as some of the only places left to cut. When he was done with his remarks Simmons turned the time over to the council to express their thoughts on the cuts and proposed tax.
First to comment for the council was Brent Buttars, who had left a family reunion to be at the unscheduled meeting. Buttars commented, “We’ve scrutinized over many things, and hope everyone understands we are talking about the general fund. We scrutinized over things like Christmas lights and things like that, that would only save the citizens less than ten cents per month.”
Council member Mike Oliverson spoke about going back to the drawing board over the last week having gone through the budget twice to see if anything was missed. Oliverson indicated that he found about $20,000 that could be pulled out of the current budget, an amount that would not result in a significant savings to the citizens. Citing water line upgrades, sidewalks and curbing, tree trimming, the city trail system, and additional street lights as items planned in the budget that will be put on hold for now. Oliverson mentioned a state regulation that will require a new ventilation system at senior center, and an anticipated $1.5 Million cost to replace the sewer pump that moves solid waste to the Logan lagoons as well as a potential cost to Logan City of $10-20 million to upgrade the sewage lagoons (a cost Smithfield City will have to participate in) as reasons why surplus money in other funds could not be utilized at this time. The $250,000 cut from the budget meant there were no raises for city employee’s, and increased benefit costs that will be passed on to them. Oliverson lamented, “We just found it difficult to make any further cuts.”
10 year council member Kris Monson mentioned having seen some interesting times over those years, and seconded what Oliverson had said, saying she reviewed the budget but only found $18,000 that could be cut from the budget. Trying to put the increase in perspective Monson mentioned that as she was walking around Lee’s Marketplace she looked at items that she could do without that would equal the approximate $2.50 monthly tax increase. Items like a 6 pack of bottled water, a large mug of soda at the convenience store, a half gallon of ice cream, and a bag of cookies were items she found that were relatively close in cost to what the tax increase would be. Expressing concern for those on a fixed income and out of work Monson related that it would be tough on many; and sacrifices would have to be made.
Barbara Kent expressed appreciation for the residents. Commenting on the residents willingness to take care of city right-aways by mowing grass, keeping these areas clean, the neighborhood watch programs in the city, picking up trash in parks, and volunteering to help with various city projects, and eagle scout projects, as being what makes Smithfield City such a great community. Kent said she went back through every line of the thirty two page budget and looked at things like fireworks, the senior center, Christmas lights, and other items that could be cut but didn’t feel it was an amount that was significant enough to feel good about cutting these things. Kent expressed that her deepest fear was that if anything even with the tax increase that the budget is perhaps a bit underfunded. Commenting that for only the third time in twenty years the city is raising the property tax to fund the general fund of the city, and said, “It would be irresponsible of us to not do something like raising tax at this time.” Kent encouraged the citizens of Smithfield to stay strong and work with state and federal legislators to keep local government strong.
In his eighth year, council member William “Dee” Wood began his comments by asking any residents that wanted to pay more taxes to raise their hand, then said, “Neither do I.” Wood went on to say, “We’ve been cutting for the past four years, we’ve been conservative and tried to save money for the residents, and now we are at a point where we can’t cut any further. We need more money in our taxes to keep the city going and manage the city.”
Following Wood’s comments Mayor Simmons expressed appreciation for the council and the time spent taking another look at the budget and for the efforts of the city manager. At that point motions were made, seconded, the resolutions were put to a vote, and a unanimous affirmative vote by the council approved the property tax increase.
After the meeting Wood commented, “Every year the certified tax rate goes down every year, if we don’t hold a truth in taxation meeting they are paying less tax every year unless their property values go way up. That is basically what has been happening every year they have been paying a little less taxes, and now we have to get some of it back.” When asked if they cut things like Christmas lights, and shut down the senior center if he thought the residents would be more upset by that than the tax increase Wood replied, “You’d have a different group complaining that would make their thoughts known, taking the parade off main street you had a group that were very upset, my opinion; parades belong on main street but the state didn’t back us on that. Public life you’re not going to please everybody, I understand that and I think the public understands that. Smithfield City is a great place to live . . . dollar for dollar you still get a big bang for the buck in Smithfield.”
Mayor Simmons said, “The council did an excellent job, they spent this entire week looking and looking and looking, and at the end of the day it just has to happen. You’ve heard me say this before, I think we’re underfunding it. We may end up back here again next year. I hope not, I really hope the sales tax returns.” Simmons mentioned that the public input that he personally received over the past week were expressions of gratitude for the council taking the time to listen and for taking the time to share and educate the public on where the money goes and how things work. “I feel it’s gone well in my opinion, I understand that there are some ‘not happy people’, and that makes me feel bad because there is not one council member, or myself, or the city manager that wakes up in the morning an says lets go see how we can tick off the city . . . I will say this, this council did an excellent job of trimming $250,000 dollars out before we ever got to this point.” When asked what other big issues are looming on the horizon Simmons said he hope the economy turns around and that they have to worry about what developments and businesses want to come to Smithfield, but said what he hears indicates there might still be a couple of tough years ahead. Simmons concluded, “Our big issues are still going to be trying to maintain the services that we have and keep our people safe and well taken care of, that’s what we swore to do.”