After residents of East Ridge spent close to two hours at Thursday night's City Council meeting expressing concerns about the city's proposed tax increases, the council surprised everyone in the room by voting to table the night’s vote on the first reading of the new budget.
Before the vote, Councilman Jim Bethune — who along with Councilman Denny Manning has been opposed to the tax hikes since they were proposed — suggested the council needed more time to survey the budget.
“Since we’ve had the people come up tonight, I think [the budget] should be looked at a lot closer before we pass any kind of taxes,” he said.
After Bethune and Manning voted to table the measure, Councilman Darwin Branam, who motioned for the tax hike in an agenda session earlier this week, voted with them — prompting gasps from the residents in the room and stunned looks from the other council members.
“I see no reason why we wouldn’t stop and go through it line item by line item,” said Branam afterward. “I don’t think they’re going to be able to find anything in there, especially not $600,000 dollars worth.”
The city faces its third $600,000 deficit if it does not find a way to increase revenues or cut services, City Manager Tim Gobble has said.
Mayor Brent Lambert also voted to table the vote, while Vice Mayor Larry Sewell voted against.
Because the vote has been delayed, Gobble said there likely will be an opportunity for citizens to join the council in budget talks later this month.
It was the opportunity many residents told the council they wish they had had before the council abruptly voted 3-2 to approve the 30-cent property tax increase, a 2 percent hotel/motel tax increase and a $5 increase to monthly sanitation fees.
“You have to take a look at these senior citizens, and a 30-cent tax increase is going to make a difference,” voiced former mayor Tom Shaver. “That’s the reason why I’m asking — have you spent enough time at the drawing board?”
Lambert explained the main bulk of cuts were made when the budget was formulated by the city’s staff, with Branam as the council’s liaison.
“All of you should be involved, not just one,” said Mimi Lowrey. “You all are a group. We didn’t elect just you, we didn’t just elect him, or him.”
Robert Stahl, president of the East Ridge merchants association, said he feared the hotel/motel tax increase would mean increased rates to rooms, hurting business.
“East Ridge is not a destination city,” he said. “[Tourists] come here because they can save money.”
He asked council to delay the vote so the association could research the tax’s potential impacts.
But not all residents were completely against the tax.
“In my opinion, East Ridge will not survive without a tax increase,” said resident Roseanne Kaylor, who has lived in the city over 76 years. She expressed fear that the city would be annexed into Chattanooga if the city did not become more financially stable.
Gobble maintains that without an increase in revenue or severe cuts to services, the city would be forced to take money out of its “dangerously low” reserve funds.