Salem ready to pass first property tax increase in almost 50 years

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Photo by City of Salem
Salem Mayor Randy Foley, Vice Mayor Jane Johnson and Councilman James Martin pose with Scout Master Steve Davis and BSA troop members after the June 10 Salem City Council. The girls are members of the Roanoke Valley’s first all-girl BSA troop in the organization formerly called Boy Scouts of America.

There were three unusual aspects of Monday night’s Salem City Council meeting: 40 people attended instead of the more usual five or six; none of the four people who spoke at public hearings opposed the proposed property tax increase, and members of a BSA troop were all girls.

The six girls recognized by Mayor Randy Foley are members of the Roanoke Valley’s first all-girl troop in the organization formerly called Boy Scouts of America. They posed for photographs with Foley, Vice Mayor Jane Johnson Councilman James Martin and Scout Master Steve Davis after the council meeting to mark their historic appearance.

It was the first time in nearly 50 years that Salem City Council is poised to pass a property tax increase, along with smaller taxes and fees. The residential rate has been $1.18 per $100 assessed value for 31 years. The anticipated revenue will provide part of the expected $36 million cost to rebuild Salem High School.

If the proposed property tax increase passes, Salem Finance Director Rosie Jordan said during budget talks in April that taxes on a $200,000 home would cost an additional $40 per year.

On automobiles, a $30,000 car or truck would cost $45 more a year in personal property taxes.

Council’s vote to approve the tax rate of on first reading was unanimous. The final vote comes after the second reading on June 24. Proposed are 2 cents real estate increase per $100 assessed value; 15 cents increase on personal property and a $3 increase on curbside garbage toter fees from $7 to $10.

Council members agreed it is time to produce more city income for capital projects sorely neglected during the years, especially after the downtown in the economy in 2008.

“This increase is all to take care of needs that should have been taken care of (after the economy bottomed in 2008),” Jones explained. “It’s been tough to have money for capital improvements…We’ve got to think of the next 25 years,” he said.

Interim City Manager Jay Taliaferro introduced the proposed real estate tax rate and tangible personal property tax rate – on cars, trucks and other vehicles. He said initial estimates for rebuilding 42-year-old Salem High School were over $50 million. “We believe we’ve found a way to reduce that to $36 million, with $2 million from the school system and $32 million borrowed,” he explained.

The $2 million would go for some roof work at the high school instead of replacing the entire roof, Taliaferro said, “and I think we can do some mechanical work. There would be renovations to existing classrooms in the middle of the building over several years,” he added.

After the meeting, Martin said the anticipated funds address the capital needs of schools. “In general, the economy is better…I think this is a good sign. We’re not trying to fix everything at one time, but I think this is what we’ve got to do.”

It was the increased toter fees that brought citizen David Foster out to oppose them. He explained since his family recycles and does not generate but about one toter of trash per month, people should be charged for how much they generate.

“I recommend a UPC code on totes and every time they are dumped they would be scanned.” The increase of $36 per year is hard on people who don’t generate much trash, he concluded.

Josh Kier, the first speaker and a former candidate for Salem City Council, said he believes Council is not being as proactive as it could be. He asked if the city has a set debt service and what is the outstanding long-term debt. Kier closed with four suggestions for council, including changing from a five to 10-year-plan for city debt, and asking the city to reserve a set amount.

“If we don’t do these things, we are going to be asking for another increase,” Kier said.

In the public hearing portion for the budget, Salem Council of PTAs President Macel Janoschka thanked Council for its support through the 2019-20 budget and proposed property tax rate increases.

Recently retired Salem Fire Battalion Capt. Eddie Hite pleaded for the city to take really good care of its employees. Although the proposed budget includes a 3 percent raise, that is overshadowed by increases in health care costs of 8 percent and 5 percent dental, he pointed out.

“We’re not taking them forward, we’re taking them back,” Hite concluded, especially employees on the lower end of the pay scale. He also said he does not see infrastructure improvements in the proposed budget, particularly for water lines.

Councilman Jones said the city is already working on lines and “trying to fix infrastructure that hasn’t been fixed in many, many years.”

In other actions at Monday night’s Council meeting, Councilmembers voted to:

  • Appropriate $149,000 in local funding, already in the current budget, to cover the city’s share of the Western Roanoke River Greenway, from Greenhill Park to West Riverside. Taliaferro said the project to connect those two pieces of Greenway is in the final stage of design and preliminary engineering underway. Roanoke County has contributed $50,000, he said.
  • Use $70,775 in Virginia Department of Transportation money to upgrade and relocate lighting at Oakey’s Field where rec league baseball and other games are played. Taliaferro explained that for the East Main Project VDOT needed to use a portion of the lighting area for stormwater management. The lights have been moved closer to the field, the interim city manager said.