The Red Bank Commission on Tuesday night voted a 59-cent property tax increase despite heavy opposition.
Residents of Red Bank, from 6 to 9 p.m., lined up to give comments about the proposed 2023-2024 budget. Those were the people who had gotten to the meeting in time to find a spot inside the packed commission room before more people were turned away. By one estimate, there were three to four times as many people left outside who could not hear or see what was being said during the public hearing before the first vote on the budget.
In all, about 40 people spoke, with the overwhelming majority opposed to the 57 percent increase to the planned property tax rate. Red Bank has had the lowest tax rate of any municipality in Hamilton County at $1.10 for every $100 of assessed amount of a property. If the proposed budget passes as currently written, that will increase to $1.69 for every $100 dollars of the assessed property value. It was noted that the property tax discussion was only relative to the city’s portion of property tax, and Hamilton County has a tax relief program for seniors, the audience was told.
Most of the increase is from personnel expenses; however, $220,000 is also planned for the assessment of three projects that the commissioners want to accomplish this year. A professional consultant will be hired to help the city’s new parks manager to develop a parks needs assessment for the cost of $30,000. There is $120,000 in the budget for another consultant who will be hired to work with the city staff to develop a comprehensive/master plan for the city. $50,000 is included for moving forward the development of the former Red Bank Middle School site. Also, a loan will be taken out to make improvements at White Oak Park, so the cost will be spread out over five years.
New personnel that are planned for in the budget include one new police officer who will be paid from the general fund. A second policeman that will be hired after July, will be funded by a grant. There will be two new employees in the solid waste department and one in the stormwater department. Part-time firefighters will be used to increase the number of people on call each night in the fire departments to five versus the current four. It was noted that it is less expensive to hire part time firefighters for overnight hours because additional benefits such as medical insurance and sick days do not apply to those working part time.
The budget includes a seven percent cost of living adjustment for all employees and all employees will be getting long-term disability insurance. There also will be incentives aimed at employee retention in a market with low unemployment. This includes a longevity bonus each year that is a percentage of a person’s salary. There will be market adjustments to pay increases targeted for specific jobs.
Citizens speaking at the meeting were opposed to the new budget three to one. One of the comments heard repeatedly was that the increase was too much and the timing was wrong. Some of the increases in the budget are due to higher expenses for materials; however, residents are facing the same increases across the board. Many speakers said Red Bank has a high proportion of people living on fixed incomes, some already have to make choices about what to spend their money on, and a tax increase that high would be a hardship on them. The speakers asked the commissioners to find efficiencies and to reduce their wish-lists the same way people have to do with their personal budgets. Other suggestions were to make the expenditures on a rotating schedule rather than all in one year. It would be more acceptable if the increases were made gradually, the commissioners were told.
One speaker wondered if the budget was planned to bankrupt the city so that the city of Red Bank could be absorbed into Chattanooga. The meeting started at 4 p.m., but most people are still at work at that time and would be unable to come said another, speculating that could have been planned.
Some of the speakers said Red Bank is trying to become a big city and is adding services that are unwanted and not needed. “You’re shaking us down for things we don’t want. If you need more money, make cuts," said one speaker. "Sidewalks on Dayton Pike is one of those because there is no benefit to walking on that road. The commission is encouraging undesirable development and allowing small cookie cutter houses to be built in every nook and cranny." Another speaker said he only wanted fire, police and public works services. He said those departments already do a fantastic job and he said he is getting what he needs. Another said, "We’re not looking for increases in service which would lead to bigger government than is wanted or needed." Another speaker said if the tax rate is raised that much it will not ever go away.
There were 10 citizens speaking in favor of the proposed budget. One man said he expected to pay property tax when he moved to the city, otherwise he would have moved to an unincorporated area. He said, "You cannot keep kicking the can down the road and still flourish." Another person addressing the commissioners, sees that this budget allows Red Bank a way to move forward. Citizens in opposition were asked if they realized what they would be getting from their taxes.
Before a vote, Commissioner Hayes Wilkinson said this budget provides a way to get caught up. He said, "I don’t want a 57-Cent increase but the lists of personnel came from the department heads, not the commissioners."
Commissioner Phillips said the 57 percent increase this year following a 10 percent rate increase last year is not wanted, but he said there is never a good time to do it.
Commissioner Jamie Fairbanks Harvey said she would not support the budget as proposed because she had heard too many voices in opposition.
Vice Mayor Stefanie Dalton suggested that the citizens find all the documents related to the budget that are on the website and study them in order to come to the next meeting to tell the commissioner what you would want to be cut from the budget.
City Manager Martin Granum read a statement from Mayor Hollie Berry who was absent. She supports the budget and said it would help meet the commission’s goals.
Votes to adopt the budget on first reading included Vice Mayor Dalton and Commissioners Phillips and Wilkinson. Commissioner Fairbanks Harvey voted against, and Mayor Berry was not allowed to vote being absent from the meeting.
The second and final reading of the budget ordinance for 2023-2024 will take place at the commission meeting on June 20. It will take place at a larger venue that can hold more citizens. The location will be announced.