Tragic Fire Hits Taxpayers 

City looks to property taxes, parking fees to cover $13 million budget hike

When asked about a tax hike during his recent mayoral reelection campaign, Mayor Joe Riley was always a little vague, but certainly not delusionally upbeat. June's Sofa Super Store fire led to wholesale changes in how the city fights fires and, God willing, changes in how they fight criticism of how they fight fires. As the recommended changes began piling up, there was little doubt taxpayers would be paying for a better fire department.

Last week, Riley revealed his proposed 2008 budget with a tax increase (about $23 for the average homeowner) and a rate increase for the city's parking garages (an extra 50 cents for the first hour).

The hike

Though no one likes a tax hike, Riley couldn't have wrapped it in a prettier bow. The city hasn't raised taxes since 1999, and that was the first time since at least 1990. The $49 million in property tax revenue doesn't even cover the expenses for fire and police protection, Riley says, and the rest of the city's $144 million budget comes from other taxes and fees. While property taxes cover about a third of the total budget now, it covered more than half of the budget 20 years ago.

That said, this year's budget touts the largest spending increase in at least a decade and caps off 10 years of growth that has nearly doubled the city's spending plan from a $78 million budget in 1998.

"Obviously we've had more spending and more revenues. So to say we haven't seen a tax increase isn't correct," says City Council member Henry Fishburne.

The fire department

While some of the recommendations by the independent fire review team involved philosophically changing the way the department does business, many of the changes come with a very real price tag. Riley notes that an additional $2.4 million would be added to the fire department's budget. The new money will pay for 18 new firefighters, along with three new positions already filled (assistant chief, safety officer, and spokesman), new uniforms and updated equipment, increased overtime to fully staff fire companies, added dispatchers, and an administrative clerk.

"It's essential," Riley says. "And I believe our citizens believe it's essential."

The city also created a $500,000 training budget for the fire department. Training received only $6,000 in last year's budget. After clear fire code violations at the Sofa Super Store, the task force also recommended more resources for fire inspections, leading to a $350,000 hike in the code enforcements, including a liaison with the fire department.

Fishburne argues that the mayor's spending plan should have been vetted by the council earlier to give members an opportunity to weigh in on fire department spending.

"You might find that council would be willing to spend even more there to get our Fire Department up to where it needs to be," he says.

Other costs

WARNING: LOTS OF BORING NUMBERS AHEAD

Now that you've been warned, the city expects a more than $600,000 increase in health care, but Riley notes that the city shopped for a new health care plan, saving $400,000 in additional hikes. He also notes that a decrease in the health care price tag last year kind of wipes the slate clean. The city will absorb the increase and not pass it on to employees.

A cost-of-living adjustment for city staff will cost $1.57 million. Sanitation, recreation, fuel, and building maintenance will get another $500,000 collectively.

The police department is getting new dispatchers and six duty officers who will work the front desk at the station, giving beat cops more time on the street. The city will also implement a new promotion scale in hopes of keeping guys on the force, though rungs on the ladder will be secured with educational requirements and other training measures. The department will also get 52 new police vehicles for about $1.2 million.

The good and bad about enterprise funds

The problem with the word "enterprise" is that it has two meanings that are similar, but certainly not interchangeable. In the sense that enterprise means "a bold venture," the city has certainly succeeded with in-demand parking garages and a host of Charleston tourist draws from the ballpark to the City Market and the Angel Oak. But, in the sense that an enterprise is a "business," the city has struggled in nearly every measure.

Though there is value to each enterprise, Angel Oak, the Visitors Center, Riley Baseball Park, Municipal Auditorium, the Municipal Golf Course, and the recently opened Old Slave Mart Museum are all money pits. The Charleston Market and the city's parking facilities have made up for the losses, but revenues from both are down this year, forcing the city's hand on the parking garage hikes.

"We don't operate it as a money generator," Riley says of the parking garages. "We operate it as a service."

While that may be true, thank your lucky quarters that there's a parking garage to take some of the bite out of the tax hike.

Handouts

Other municipalities are buckling under the pressure to ditch assistance programs to needy agencies, with conservatives suggesting these types of donations should be left to the taxpayer. But Riley and city staff stood by the nearly half-a-million dollars budgeted for 28 groups, including $200,000 to the Charleston Housing Trust, with much smaller gifts to shelters, church outreach programs, and other nonprofits. City finance chief Stephen Bedard noted these groups are vetted annually, with random audits and mandatory reports to show the city how the money was spent.

"We have lots of follow-ups and checks," he says.

This and That

Here are a few facts rounding out the budget:

• Revenue from swim team tournaments is expected to climb from $150,000 to $249,000.

• There's another $300,000 needed for street lights.

• Indicative of the slumping housing

market, the city is budgeting a drop in inspection permit fees.

• Parking meter violations are expected to net about $400,000 less than was bud- geted for 2007.

Where to find that extra $23

Mayor Joe Riley told Charleston City residents last week that they may be looking at a tax increase next year that equates to a $23 hike for someone with a $175,000 home (deemed the "average" homeowner). Here's our suggestions on where you can find that $23.

• Buy a carton of cigarettes and start sell- ing them in front of downtown bars.

• Set up a makeshift toll booth on the Arthur Ravenel for about three minutes. Hell, the tourists probably expect to pay it.

• Let the lawn boy go a week early.

• Skip the babysitter and just leave the kids in that line to see Santa (there's two hours, easy).


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