Tax hike on the horizon?

With almost one month until the final approval of a new budget, Mayor Parker Wiseman and members of Starkville Board of Aldermen are deciding what goes in and what does out.
A touchy subject last year, the idea of raising property taxes was discussed as a possibility this time around.
“We’ve not made that decision,” said Vice Mayor Sandra Sistrunk after a two-hour budget work session Wednesday evening, where officials weighed the pros and cons of raising taxes by around 1 mill.
That would cost the owner of a $75,000 home $1.22 per month, if he or she is under the age of 65, according to Sistrunk’s report.
Sistrunk said that it would be easier for residents and businesses to increase millage in small increments rather than by one large hike.
“Our initial reaction is we don’t want to do that, and that’s not a bad reaction,” she said during the meeting. “No one says we want to be the highest collector of ad valorem taxes, but we sure don’t want to be the lowest in our peer group.”
Sistrunk displayed a PowerPoint chart, showing Starkville to have accumulated taxes lower in millage than comparable cities in Mississippi, including West Point, Columbus, Tupelo and Oxford.
For the 2009-2010 tax roll, the City of Starkville took in 19.55 mills of ad valorem tax session. The following shows how much other municipalities collected during the same budget season:
• Columbus - 36.77 mills.
• Hattiesburg - 46.92 mills.
• Oxford 27.25 mills.
• Horn Lake - 42 mills.
• Meridian - 50.84 mills.
• Olive Branch - 34.50 mills.
• West Point - 33.60 mills.
• Tupelo - 32.47 mills.
The local 2010 ad valorem tax roll allotted Oktibbeha County with 36 percent, the city schools 49 percent , leaving 15 percent for the City of Starkville. Additionally, the city received a negative budget rating due to its low ending fund balance.
“We have eroded our ending fund balance by continuing to spend more than we should,” Sistrunk said.
The city also faces costly long term needs outside of infrastructure repair, such as new equipment and a fire truck for Fire Station No. 5, which was constructed primarily with grant funds.
Health insurance costs for city employees might go up 15 percent, officials said, while their salary inequities have still not been addressed.
And, with a growing residential and student population, the Starkville Police Department’s already tight force will need to gain numbers.
“I think it’s time for us to realize where we are,” said Ward 5 Alderman Jeremiah Dumas, who supports raising ad valorem taxes to increase city services.
“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to discuss it,” Sistrunk added.
Ward 6 Alderman Roy Á. Perkins opposed the idea, suggesting that the city simply conserve more, generating a question from Dumas: “How can we be more conservative?”
Dumas also suggested a budget term that would last longer than one year. The city’s annual budget must be approved by Sept. 15.
On Tuesday, the board will meet to discuss and possibly vote on whether to raise taxes, along with streamlining several departments into an environmental services division and cutting some outside contributions by 5 to 10 percent.