Mill sale possibility raises concerns for Canton board members
Residents in the Canton city limits will not pay more in taxes this year, but will be paying more in trash fees after the Canton Board of Aldermen unanimously approved the 2014-2015 budget last week.
Some aldermen, however, expressed concern about the budget in light of concerns that the town's largest employer — and taxpayer — Evergreen Packaging, is for sale.
Compared to the budget of $7.1 million for the current fiscal year, the proposed budget is slightly more at $7.7 million, though most of the increase comes from a one-time loan to cover an automated water meter system. Water and sewer fees are not expected to increase appreciably.
The tax rate will remain the same at 58 cents per $100 of property valuation. Trash fees are increasing from $9 each month to $10.25 to make up for the loss of the county's refuse allocation, which has been $23,400 the past two years.
The board also included a 2.5 percent cost of living adjustment for town employees, with everyone receiving at least a $750 raise.
The reliance on the fund balance has been reduced by 54 percent by looking at new strategies to increase cost recovery at recreational facilities such as the pool.
A new street sweeper, coming in at about $180,000, will replace the aging equipment and the town is planning to borrow about $420,000 to purchase automated water meters, which is expected to provide significant savings in about 10 years.
There have been moments of contention over this year's budget, particularly regarding a proposed firing range to be built for the town's police department. The range was originally budgeted at a cost of about $10,000, but after objections from some board members Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss said he worked with the police chief to come up with a lower number.
The proposed range remains in the budget with an earmark of $3,500 to begin engineering plans and the permitting process if the board is able to find a suitable location. The rest of the project will be funded in the next fiscal year.
Alderman Carole Edwards said the board should be cautious about spending money in this budget because it's unclear what the future holds for Camp Hope, which is still in the midst of litigation, and the pool.
"The final thing is, we learned recently that the fine folks over at Evergreen have decided they want to put that mill up for sale, so we don't know what's going to happen with that," she said.
She pointed out that she is happy the budget will be reducing the town's dependence on the fund balance by more than 50 percent. She hopes the town can work toward seeing the recreation budget stand alone without pulling money from other resources.
"Let's face it, the recreational opportunities in our community, that's what we have here…our recreational facilities are our claim to fame and we want to make sure that those stay here," she said.
In the end, Edwards voted in favor of the budget.
"This budget, overall, is a good budget. It has a raise for our employees, it provides for some updates to our water system, which eventually will pay for itself.
"I'm not opposing this budget tonight, but I am voting for it with the caution that we be very careful about how we spend our money in the future," Edwards said.
Alderman Ralph Hamlett said he is proud the board and the town were able to collaborate to come up with the budget and managed to afford a raise for town employees.
"Sometimes when I vote, you may disagree with how I vote. My vote is one of conscience, I hope one of informed thinking, one of love for you and with love for my town," he said before voting to approve the budget.
As secretary of the union post 507, Alderman Gail Mull promptly addressed the rumor about the mill closure, saying there has been no official information released from the mill on the issue.
"According to the website, our mill has been for sale since the day he bought it. He bought it to sell. His seven years are up next year — that's when his tax benefits go away, and he is not increasing the push to sell, it is just out there if someone wants to. I don't speak for the mill, nor do I speak for the union. I am only speaking for myself, but that is my flawed understanding of where we are on that," Mull said.
As her board members before her, Mull was happy about the employee raise in the budget.
"Everybody needs a slice of the pie. Whether you've been here a long time or you've been here a short time, you need to be rewarded as much as possible," she said.
"I think this budget is as close to helping as many people as we possibly can this go around. Next year, maybe we can do better. We can always do better. But it is about vision and Seth has one, and I intend to vote yes," Mull said.
Giving employees a raise and addressing the pool were two issues that Alderman Zeb Smathers said he ran his campaign on and he is proud to see them in the budget.
"We've dedicated ourselves to the pool. The decision has been made, this budget reflects that and we're taking the steps to not just protect, but increase the use of our recreation facility at the rec park and the pool is the crown jewel. It will be something this town will be proud of and this board and this budget is reflective of that," he said.
Regardless of rumors about possible business closure, he said the board's next focus should be on growing the I-40 corridor on Champion Drive and the downtown area.
Though the mayor does not receive a vote on the board, he also shared his feelings about the budget.
"There are several things that I do not agree with in the budget and I still don't. That doesn't mean I would not vote for it. Looking at the budget as a businessman I think it's some things I would not have done," Ray said.
He brought up his opposition to the idea of spending thousands of dollars on a new firing range rather than spending around $250 using other ranges in the county. He also disagrees with borrowing money for the automated water meters.
"I guess I'm a bit more cautious with other things that may come forward looking at debt structure that we have. I know we may can take on a lot of debt, but when you have a lot of debt you still have to pay that debt," he said, pointing toward the uncertainty of how much the new pool will cost.
"If I were voting tonight, I would vote yes, but with these reservations that I did not agree with," Ray said.