Mayor Gippy Graham, the only member of the City Commission with nothing to win or lose in November’s election – he chose not to run – took the opportunity to get some things off his chest last week when the board voted 4-1 to decrease the city property tax rate by 2 percent. His was the lone dissenting vote.
The mayor said he doesn’t want to raise anyone’s taxes but went on to argue the public is getting a raw deal when the commission uses a small property tax reduction to soften a bigger occupational tax increase. By his reckoning, Frankfort property owners will save $75,000 on the property tax but if they pay occupational taxes on their income, they’ll shell out $842,000 more this fiscal year.
The occupational tax hike from 1.75 percent to 1.95 percent doesn’t hit paychecks until Jan. 1, after the voters have spoken.
Tax games are a sensitive topic for the outgoing mayor, who came under attack from a young upstart for supporting a $5-a-month garbage collection fee to help balance the city budget three years ago. Commissioner Sellus Wilder called the fee a backdoor tax increase well before the U.S. Supreme Court declared fines on Americans who refuse to buy health insurance legally constitute a tax. Apparently it’s kosher to characterize a fee as a tax if it suits your political purposes.
The last commission election ushered in a youth movement. A three-member majority – Wilder and newcomers Katie Hedden and Michael Turner – responded to public discontent over the garbage fee by giving residents a new “pay-as-you-throw” plan with low or no fees for those using smaller garbage carts, higher fees for those who choose larger containers. The city is spending about a million dollars on a lease-purchase plan for the carts, which enable mechanized pickup.
Graham pointed out that these changes left a hole in the budget that had to be filled. Pay-to-throw cut in half the $600,000 annual revenue from the old fee.
His question and answer: “Where does the extra money come from? To do these things it’s going to come from the occupational tax.”
Actually, not even the tax increase was enough. Finance Director Steve Dawson said a continued hiring freeze to save $300,000 and a $423,973 transfusion from the reserve fund were also necessary to close the budget gap.
Wilder maintained the new garbage system will be a money saver in the long run by making collection more efficient and encouraging more people to recycle, which could lower landfill fees. As for the occupational tax hike, he defended it as a way to shift some of the tax burden from residents to people who work in Frankfort but don’t live in the city (and incidentally can’t vote in the city election).
Expanded recycling is a laudable aim, but is this the best way to achieve it? While the city inaugurated rationed disposal, county government switched to a new trash-collection contractor who provided each household two big carts, one for conventional waste and the other for recyclables. County residents still pay no monthly fee for the service, although the continuation of that arrangement probably hinges on increased recycling.
City residents were unhappy with Graham’s $5 fee, and some are displeased with the current policy and fee structure. Voters may have limited recourse, with political challengers freely criticizing incumbents but offering little in the way of specific alternatives.