East Ridge residents are one step closer to a balanced budget, 30 cent property tax increase, $5 solid waste fee increase and 2 percent hotel/motel tax increase after City Council members approved the new budget’s first reading Thursday.
Alterations still can be made until the July 7 second reading of the budget, but Mayor Brent Lambert doesn’t expect to see many changes in two weeks.
“There were no amendments offered,” he said. “We’ll probably have the same on July 7.”
But Councilman Jim Bethune, who voted against the first reading approval along with Councilman Denny Manning, said the rest of the council has been set on the current budget since Day 1.
“Everything was cut and dried at the first budget meeting,” Bethune said. “We were sitting there, Mr. [City Manager Tim] Gobble, myself and Mr. Manning didn’t have a clue. We thought we were going to sift through, line item by line item.”
Bethune and Manning said cuts could be made to stave off a tax increase — the proposed increase would put property taxes at $1.42 — and the increases will put too heavy a burden on low- and fixed-income city residents.
“There are so many people out here who live week to week, payday to payday, who just can’t afford it,” Bethune said.
Raising taxes is never a popular decision, but Vice Mayor Larry Sewelll said in this case, the council’s hands are tied.
“None of us want to do a tax increase, but I don’t see another way unless you cut people out,” he said. “Cutting out the town employees is not going to help the city, it’s only going to hurt individuals.”
City employees already have taken a hit in the proposed budget. Though a 3 percent salary raise is proposed, a spike in health care costs effectively will act as an across-the-board pay cut, Lambert said.
But cutting out employees is exactly what some locals called for at a special public comment meeting before the Thursday vote.
“We have great employees here in East Ridge, but this government isn’t run for the 120 employees, it’s run for the 20,000 East Ridge citizens,” 17-year East Ridge resident Frances Pope said.
Richard Elrod, who runs a local fastener distribution business, sees cuts as the only option.
“If people have to be laid off, I hate it,” he said. “It tears my heart out, but I’ll have to do something. It’s the lifeblood of my company.”