The Murfreesboro City Council will hold a first reading on the new budget and discuss a proposed property tax increase Wednesday, and the city is now reporting the second and final reading will take place Thursday night.

The council will hold a first reading at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday at City Hall. On Monday, the council announced it would hold a meeting this Thursday at 7 p.m. at City Hall for the second and final reading.

The council has been considering a 39 percent property tax hike to accompany the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, which begins July 1.

The Wednesday meeting is the council’s monthly daytime workshop-business meeting. The council does not always hold a Thursday night meeting the same week, but on Monday announced it would do so to hold the second reading.

Officials previously said the Wednesday meeting will not have a public hearing. It was not clear if residents would be allowed to speak at this Thursday’s meeting.

Last Thursday, the council held a public hearing on the budget and tax proposal as well as a monthly open-mic public comment session. The council heard from residents upset at the proposed tax hike at both hearings. The council could have held a first reading at that point but decided not to because council members wanted to give Mayor Shane McFarland and Councilmember Rick LaLance a chance to participate; they did not attend that meeting.

The recommended budget for FY20 totals $647million, with $188.8 million budgeted in the General

Fund.

City officials have said a tax increase is needed because while the city is growing, the tax rate of $0.9494 is 50 percent less than it was in 1999; the city adjusted the rate down five times to keep revenue neutral when county property assessments increased. Meanwhile, the city’s costs for equipment and materials increased by more than 50 percent. The new proposed rate is 31 percent below the 1998 rate, officials said.

However, those explanations have not sat well with many residents.

Citizens speak out

At least six citizens spoke at the first hearing Thursday and about 17 spoke at the second hearing, with some overlap. Members of the audience frequently applauded and called out. Vice Mayor Madelyn Scales Harris, who chaired the meeting, several times asked the audience to stay quiet while seated, informed speakers their time limit had expired and threatened to have people removed who applauded.

At the end of the meeting, Councilmember Eddie Smotherman said two people who spoke at the podium had county – not city – addresses.

‘Unheard of’ increase

One speaker was Dr. Bill Ford, a former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta and a retired holder of the Weatherford Chair of Excellence in Finance in the Jennings A. Jones College of Business at Middle Tennessee State University. He said that with the proposed county tax increase, city residents faced a 55 percent to 60 percent property tax increase.

“That is something unheard of,” Ford said. “I have lived here 29 years and have never seen anything like this, and it shocks me.”

Ford said he was most concerned about the impact on the poorest families, as well as MTSU students, who are facing a tuition increase; higher property taxes means their apartments would have higher rent. He also asked City Manager Craig Tindall to stop calling the tax hike “revenue enhancements,” referring to a statement Tindall had made.

Another speaker, Gabriel Fancher, said he saw some issues in the city budget. While growth is good, when he spoke individually to councilmembers, they indicated they were surprised by the shortfall. He said the council and mayor, who are part-time, are overworked and need to increase the size of the council. He said they could retain the existing at-large seats and add seats by district. They also need to create a budget committee to manage the budget on a regular basis.

Chris Littleton spoke twice. He said he represented Tennessee Rising; the group’s website says it is a non-partisan entity. Littleton referred to research he conducted on five years’ worth of Murfreesboro’s budgets in partnership with The Beacon Center of Tennessee, a conservative think tank.

The research shows that from 2013-2019, the city saw a 36 percent increase in revenue and a 44 percent increase in spending. The report concluded that the proposed property tax increase would generate an extra $19 million in revenue but the expenditures would increase by almost $17 million, “gobbling up most of the tax increase,” requiring a new tax increase in a few years.

Fixed income worries

Richard Baines, a Korean War veteran, said he, like many, is a retiree who lives on a fixed income and is concerned the cost for growth is not being shared fairly.

“Unbridled growth has driven the cost of repairs up, forcing some elderly homeowners to ‘hock the house’ to replace a roof and to give up who knows what to meet the monthly note payment,” according to his prepared remarks.

Dave Criswell said, “Virtually everyone in this room knows this tax increase is a done deal.”

Criswell called that “frustrating,” and pointed out that for years, the council said the money it spent on sports facilities was meant to broaden the tax base and get out-of-towners to pay.

“When is that going to start happening,” Criswell asked, and said every park the city builds puts it further in debt. He asked the council to stop comparing running city government to running a business because “a business cannot force people to do business with them.”

‘Pet projects’ alleged

Criswell also said the city had just agreed to borrow $58 million in debt. He said the council included new hangars for the airport in that debt, but did not announce it was for “the wealthy and MTSU.” He accused the council of spending money on “pet projects.”

One woman who addressed the council said she is a single parent who has to mow yards to help pay her mortgage because homeownership here is so expensive. She said she has lived in Nashville and California, and asked the council not to turn the city into “a crazy California housing place.”

One man who addressed the council said a 39 percent property tax increase, “tells me you’ve got a spending problem like a drunk sailor.”

‘Do the right thing’

Scales Harris told the Murfreesboro Post after the meeting that a tax increase is needed but she wants to consider any options to provide a tax freeze to groups like seniors, the disabled and veterans.

“But how much can people stand,” she said of the likely city and county tax increases. “I want to do the right thing. I do not want to turn it into where the elderly cannot afford their medicines. It was a misconception we overspent millions on projects.”

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