Columbus council priorities for 2009: limit taxes, control spending

Published 5:29 pm Thursday, January 15, 2009

Columbus Town Council members made it clear at their annual retreat Saturday that they want to focus on limiting taxes and spending, particularly given the current economic conditions.

Town council also identified as top priorities the repair of sidewalks around the historic county courthouse and upgrades to the town&squo;s aging water and sewer infrastructure.

Town council spent several hours Saturday at a meeting room in the Stearns building in Columbus listening to reports from each department and discussing the town&squo;s needs. At the end of the retreat each council member and the mayor assigned a priority to each need.

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Town manager Tim Holloman discussed the potential impact of the county&squo;s 2009 property revaluation on the Columbus property tax rate. The county has not advised how much average property tax values will rise as a result of the revaluation. When it does, he said, the town can calculate how much to adjust its tax rate to a revenue neutral level.

Holloman recommended that&bsp; council consider a small property tax increase for fiscal year 2009-2010, which begins July 1, to avoid having to raise the tax rate more a few years from now. With an increase of 2 cents per $100 of property valuation, the town could potentially avoid a tax hike for the next eight years, he said.

But council members said they prefer a revenue-neutral tax rate that would lower the rate enough to offset increased property values from the revaluation, but allow some increase based on average annual growth in the tax base from new buildings and new parcels since the last revaluation.

Council members said it&squo;s important to limit any tax increase and control spending as much as possible given the state of the economy. Council member Michael Gage suggested the town develop a contingency budget plan in case revenue drops dramatically and the town must make significant, temporary spending cuts.

Despite concerns about spending, council members did identify the courthouse sidewalks and water/sewer infrastructure as projects that they can&squo;t afford to put on hold. They said the sidewalks, which are uneven and broken in places, present a safety hazard and have to be addressed soon, even if the town does not get grant funds its seeking for other improvements to courthouse square.

&dquo;I walk around there and I hope some day I do not fall,&dquo; said Columbus Mayor Kathleen McMillian. &dquo;Those bricks are very, very hazardous. Just to do the sidewalks I think would be an asset to Columbus.&dquo;

The mayor also emphasized the importance of addressing water/sewer infrastructure needs, noting that deposits in the old lines have reduced flow significantly in some cases.

&dquo;We can get all the water in the world, but if we don&squo;t have pipes to flow through, how are we going to get it to customers?&dquo; she said.

Other needs identified as priorities, although to a lesser degree, were: budget workshops, other courthouse square improvements including landscaping, the rehabilitation of old water lines and Veterans Memorial Park enhancements.

Town council members said they are not interested in considering involuntary annexation, but they are interested in utilizing the town&squo;s extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ). The ETJ would allow it to control land uses in an area up to one mile from the town&squo;s current corporate limits, but the town must first seek the approval of the county and the state legislature.

Manager Holloman said Saluda is also interested in utilizing its ETJ so the two municipalities could submit their requests to county commissioners at the same time.