The city should raise taxes enough to give city employees a merit-pay increase of 1% to 2%, Council Member Dan Besse said during Thursday’s meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council’s Finance Committee.

Besse said that it would take an increase of 0.59 cents on the tax rate to grant a 1% increase and 1.18 cents to grant a 2% increase, in a year when the tax rate is already set to rise 4 cents to pay for $122 million in bonds the voters approved last fall.

Several council members said after the meeting that they don’t back Besse’s idea, and Finance Committee Chairman Robert Clark said he will be surprised the idea would even get a second if Besse puts his idea into the form of a motion.

“Four cents is asking a lot, and I believe we have to hold the line,” Clark said. While some on the council dismissed the idea outright, Council Member Annette Scippio said the city ought to be able to figure out how to provide at least some sort of merit pay hike without raising taxes.

The Finance Committee heard Besse’s proposal during a budget workshop held at City Hall Thursday afternoon. The workshop was followed by a public hearing Thursday night in which two citizens appealed for the city to hold the line on taxes:

“It is enough that our taxes are going to go up 4 cents because of the bonds,” said Sara Blackburn during the budget public hearing. “Please hold the line so that people don’t flee our community.”

And Jo Frazier said she agreed with Blackburn and appealed for council members to keep in mind an aging population and flat income levels.

Besse’s worry is that it will be employees fleeing the city should the city fail to keep pace with market forces driving increases in other cities and towns. Besse pointed out that the city has just spent a lot of money and effort on bringing pay levels up in recent years.

“I don’t think we can afford to slide back into the hole,” Besse said, noting that Greensboro, High Point and Charlotte are all proposing 3% merit pay increases. Here, although the budget keeps pay increases at mid-year designed to boost police and firefighter pay, no general merit increase is on tap in City Manager Lee Garrity’s proposed budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year that starts on July 1.

The Winston-Salem tax rate is currently 59.74 cents for every $100 of taxable property. That means that the owner of a property valued at $150,000 pays $896.10 in city taxes.

With the proposed 4-cent increase coming from the voter-approved bonds, the rate would rise to 63.74 cents, and that same homeowner would pay $956.10, or $60 more.

A 1% to 2% merit increase, going by Besse’s numbers, would increase that homeowner’s tax bill by a range of $8.85 to $17.70.

Any increase beyond 4 cents struck Council Member D.D. Adams as too much:

“I’ve got to hold the line,” Adams said. “The citizens voted for the bonds, but we were able to tighten our belts” and have no other increase, she said.

Most of the speakers during Thursday’s public hearing were representatives of various organizations that are lined up to get city grants ranging from $4,520 to $240,000. All the grants together total only $3.1 million out of a city budget of $496.4 million, but they are always the ones that draw the most passionate appeals for spending.

Thursday was no exception.

“This year, for the very first time, Senior Services submitted a request for $25,000 for Meals on Wheels,” said Lee Covington, the president of the nonprofit group. The Senior Services request was among almost 20 local groups not recommended for funding in the proposed budget, which puts such requests through a review process to determine which ones make the cut.

But the lobbying effort by a newer group, Winston-Salem Ambassadors, may have paid off, since Adams, during the budget workshop, recommended that they get $5,000. The group had started out asking for about $117,000, then pared it down to $25,000.

Adams said $5,000 would be good “seed money” to help the group, which exists to welcome new arrivals to the city and help them connect with like-minded services and activities.

Representatives of established groups such as Old Salem, the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, Kaleideum and the N.C. Black Repertory Co., producers of the National Black Theatre Festival, were among groups thanking the city for support.

Newer groups that focus on helping people merge back into society after a stint in prison, such as My Brother’s Second Chance and the Wells Center Inc., also came to give thanks for city support.

Tatiana Russell of IFB Solutions, which employs the blind, came hoping for more than the $5,000 approved for her group, which had requested $90,000 to buy new equipment.

Ernestine Williams, who uses transportation services provided by the Shepherd’s Center of Greater Winston-Salem, spoke up for that agency, which is slated to get $15,000 instead of the $25,000 requested.

“They are wonderful people,” Williams said. “They are always there on time and they always pick me up on time.”

Bill McClain, the director of the Guiding Institute for Developmental Education, hadn’t applied for city money but came to the public hearing saying that the county had not granted the $25,000 he needs to run a summer program for disadvantaged children and families.

“We need $25,000, and I’ll take it any way I can get it,” he said. 336-727-7369 @wyoungWSJ

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