1-cent tax increase fails to pass

FRONT ROYAL – The first reading of a proposed 1-cent real estate tax increase received a 3-2 vote in favor, but did not pass because a majority vote was needed.

Town Councilmen Gary Gillispie and Chris Morrison represented the two dissenting votes, and Town Councilman John Connolly was absent.

The current real estate tax is 13.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, and a 1-cent tax increase would generate $110,000 annually. One of the major expenses necessitating a tax increase is the construction of the new $10.21 million police station.

Finance Director B.J. Wilson previously said that without the penny increase, and if the New Market Tax Credit refinance rate remains level, the town would be about $80,000 in the hole.

After the initial vote failed, Councilman Jacob Meza motioned to include a “sunset clause” ensuring the increase be used solely for the Front Royal Police Department and be removed when debt service for its construction is paid. That also failed 3-2, with Gillispie and Morrison as the dissenters.

Had Connolly been at the meeting and voted in favor of the increase, the first reading would have passed.

Connolly said during a previous work session that he would have a “tough time” voting for a tax increase when the town is “sitting on $1.5 million in the general fund above the three-month reserve.”

Gillispie cited that reserve as one reason he voted against the increase.

“I just don’t see the need. If we ever need a tax increase, yeah, I’m all for it. But I don’t see it this year,” he said.

Councilman Jacob Meza said although reserve funds are available, the police station’s annual debt service would be about $275,000 annually. He noted other projects for which the town has to pay debt services include Leach Run Parkway, the Criser Road Trail bridge and more.

Councilman Eugene Tewalt voiced opposition to using the reserve fund because if the town continues doing so “one day we won’t have any reserves.”

Tewalt noted that he was the only one to vote against the police department, but is in favor of the increase because it was approved and is now under construction.

“If you’re going to spend money you’ve got to find a way to pay for,” Tewalt said.

Tewalt and Morrison agreed that a 1-cent increase this year would be better than a 4- to 5-cent hike down the line.

“I’m not interested in raising taxes any more than anyone on this council, and that’s why I voted against the $10 million dollars. But I will support a penny because we’ve got to have it,” Tewalt said.

Morrison said one reason he voted against the tax increase is that the county is undergoing property reassessments, and the town should receive money from that next year.

He said the town shouldn’t rely on taxpayers to fund the police department and “this will force us to be more innovative and creative in our ways of generating revenue.”

Councilman William Sealock said he voted in favor of the increase because 1-cent is reasonable and that the town has “kicked the can for the police department down the road for 20 years.”

“I’d prefer that we’d planned for it, and we should have been planning for this several years before,” Sealock said.

Joe Andrews was the only citizen to speak during a public hearing before the vote, noting what he said were unnecessary and overpriced purchases made by the town. Those included the purchase of a utility vehicle for the water and sewer maintenance department, going over budget for the police station, crosswalks, a compensation study, Leach Run Parkway construction, and a possible new Town Hall generator.

He said “the issue is not so much a shortage as it is frivolous spending” and that “I just found your $80,000.”

“I think you guys just need to sharpen your pencils. You’re smart guys and I know that you can do it,” Andrews said.

Town Council will further discuss the matter at its 7 p.m. March 19 work session.