"Do a tax rate increase."
That's how City Manager Mary Suhm sums up the feedback from Thursday night's budget meeting at Edna Rowe Elementary.
"That's pretty universal when we're at town hall meetings," she says.
Despite the overwhelming number of residents pleading for a tax increase to restore Suhm's budget cuts to parks, libraries and streets at budget meetings throughout the city, Mayor Tom Leppert remains steadfast in his opposition to raising taxes. Suhm says this conflict is a clear example of the difference between her role and function as the city's chief executive officer and the city council as its board of directors with Leppert serving as chair.
"Can this community live with the budget that I recommended? Yes," she tells Unfair Park. "Is the board willing to? I don't know. We'll see."
While Leppert insisted on a budget without a tax increase, Suhm says a further drop in the property tax base would have prevented her from recommending a budget without a small tax hike. Speaking as a citizen, Suhm says park maintenance cutbacks "give me heartburn," and she's also concerned about the potential loss of library hours and materials.
Suhm estimates that raising the current 74.79 cents per $100 valuation property tax rate by "a couple cents" would be enough to pay for the services she's like to see restored. As we pointed out, she sent a memo to council members on Friday detailing what services can be kept with tax increases ranging from one cent up to the maximum of 4.93 cents, which would add nearly $40 million in revenue to spend on park and street maintenance, hours at rec centers and libraries and library materials.
None of the attendees at the town hall meetings have advocated for a specific tax increase, Suhm says, but she guesses that they would be comfortable with "no more than a couple" cents.
The council's seven minority members have referenced the position of their constituency when advocating for a tax increase, and council member Dave Neumann on Wednesday appeared to follow their lead, indicating that he'd entertain a tax hike because "the feedback has been very telling" at his town hall meetings, according to DMN'er Rudy Bush. While undecided, Angela Hunt is also considering a tax increase and was one of several council members to walk out of the room on Monday during a briefing about the tax rate, which was subsequently canceled because of the lack of a quorum.
Leppert told us on Tuesday that he will continue to listen to the public, but the mayor stressed that there are folks who can't attend the town hall meetings because they're working and the majority of those who do show up represent "special interests." Suhm agrees that most attendees are activists and the crowds are only a small representation of the city's 1.3 million residents, but having been with the city for more than 30 years, she says people haven't been shy in the past about showing up to fight tax increases.
"There's some validity to a discussion that rises to the level that you're motivated to get up and express an opinion," she says. "While you might argue that this is not representative of the whole community, it is expressing an opinion that I've heard expressed the other way in the past."
Budget town hall meetings resume at 6:30 tonight at the Martin Weiss Recreation Center followed by four on Tuesday hosted separately by Dwaine Caraway, Tennell Atkins, Carolyn Davis and Ann Margolin. The council will be briefed on Wednesday about the budgets for libraries and street services.