I collected the most frequently asked questions about the tax increase from both comments on this site and on the TiLV Facebook page, and I sent them off to our Mayor. She responded and I am posting her answers in their entirety, here.
Dear Residents of La Vergne,
Thank you for the opportunity to reply to your questions regarding the proposed tax increase for LaVergne. I have struggled with the decision and spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out alternatives. But to give you some history, for well over a decade the city had not increased water/sewer fees in order to help less fortunate residents. While this sympathetic approach has been a great boost for families in LaVergne, it has caused serious damage to the city itself; we have been operating our water department in the red since 2007 and our reserve account is virtually drained.
Our other income sources had previously been from building permits, largely in the Lake Forest subdivision. There were few checks and balances in place – the builders and developer had virtually free reign so they built inexpensive houses in sardine neighborhoods. Then the housing market tanked and our residents found themselves stuck, the city found itself stuck with no more revenues coming in, and our expenses were still piling on deep.
While any decision to increase taxes is never popular, sometimes we have nothing left but hard choices and that is what we’re now faced with. The party is over and it’s now time to pay the band. The challenge is that if we spread out an increase, it has to be approved every year. Frankly after going 18 years with no increase, adjusting the tax just one time becomes an obvious choice.
But you rightfully ask why can’t the city cut expenses? Why do we need to keep parks open? It’s coming down to the nitty-gritty, so I do appreciate the chance to answer your questions.
1. What are some specific items that are being cut from the budget to save the city money?
City workers are no longer getting automatic raises. There is no 3% available this year. Additionally, money paid to non-profits has been severely limited –including cuts to Second Harvest Food Bank, Box 100, YMCA, and more. When you compare the number of city workers we have with the number employed by our neighbor Smyrna, you’ll see we are down to the bare bones with our staffing:
The total does not add up because this is just a sampling on pretty standard services that residents expect a city to provide.
Editor’s Note: The population of Smyrna is 38,073 according to their website. The population of La Vergne is 32,588 according to 2010 U.S. Census figures.
2. What’s up with all these new police cruisers I am seeing all over the place? Why did you replace all these cars when the city is broke?
The newest cruiser was purchased this year when another was totaled by a drunk driver. That driver’s insurance paid for the new vehicle. Otherwise, the newest car is 2008. It is true that you will see new city police cruisers in the new budget, however. Because the cars go full-time with three police shifts, they wear out quickly. Instead of outright buying new vehicles, though, the city is instituting a lease program so the cars can be changed out every three to four years. Our police cars do look new because our officers conscientiously take care of them.
3. You say there’s not enough police officers, yet I see several police cars come up on the scene of a wreck or someone they have pulled over. Why is that?
Please remember there have been lone police officers shot during routine traffic stops all over the country. We do not have enough officers to ride double in a car, so when a car is pulled over and another officer is available they will both stop to back each other up. When there is a traffic stop, you never know who is in the car or whether they have a gun with the intention to do harm. Because the safety of my officers is one of my top priorities, this practice will continue as long as I am mayor.
4. Why are we getting hit with both a water rate increase AND a tax increase at the same time? Don’t you know unemployment is up and prices are increasing?
Prices are increasing across the board, including for the city. The city has to pay more for gas, more for the chemicals to keep the water clean, more for paper, more for all the products we need to keep the city operating. In addition, health insurance for city workers increased by 25% this year – one of the key reasons there are no raises for employees at this time. They are fairly low-paid already, so the greater value to them was paying their higher insurance premium rather than a cost of living increase. Why don’t we charge the employees for health care coverage? It is something that may be considered in future budget years, but for now it is one true benefit we can provide for workers who are already underpaid.
However, the question is about water/sewer and taxes going up at the same time. The city has been subsidizing the sewer fees for between 60 and 80 cents per 100 cubic feet for several years. We fought the increased fees that Nashville was charging alongside other cities (Brentwood, etc.) and we got the fee lowered from $1.47 to $1.17. To avoid losing this sewer service completely, our hand was forced. However, these increases were never charged to the consumer. Those reserve funds are gone because we have subsidized the citizens of LaVergne for four years and can just no longer afford to do this. In April alone, our bill to Metro-Nashville was over $140,000.
The reason we have to consider a tax increase at this time is we are legally obligated to pass a balanced budget by state law. Without an increase, we would be $1.8 million in the red. Our annual operating budget is roughly $13 million and Smyrna’s is about $65 million, I believe. Clearly, there are no more cuts to be made.
5. How do you expect people to pay for such a huge increase? Don’t you know we’re poor?
Perhaps people believe all of their taxes are going up. While we have no control over what the County charges for taxes, our city taxes have not increased for 18 years. For a house appraised at $100,000, though, you currently pay $125 p/year in property taxes. It’s true that amount will double. So you’ll be paying $250 p/year – or an additional $10 p/month. For a $200,000 house, the amount is $20 more p/month. How do we expect people to pay for the increase? Everyone is different and everyone manages their budgets individually. I can only encourage you to spread the payment out over the year so it is not as painful at the end of the year. Also, stop by City Hall and pick up from our Chamber of Commerce office a guide to where people can find aid.
6. Why does the Mayor have a city car? Why can’t she drive herself to work?
I am paid $15,000 p/year – $430 higher than the poverty level for a family of two. I consider my job a full-time position and am available at city hall nearly every day. One benefit of the job is the use of a city vehicle, but the truck is used by all city employees – for employee travel, during emergency situations, etc. The reason I drive the truck home is the same reason all police vehicles are driven home – in the event of a major emergency, the vehicles should be scattered so they cannot all be immobilized at one time by a disaster such as a tornado, straight-line winds, etc. By keeping the vehicles out of the same place at the same time, this prevents all city vehicles from being out-of-service in time of emergencies.
Regarding “the mayor’s vehicle” – it was the vehicle driven by the former IT Director. Not new. The city purchased a 1998 (I believe) Ford Expedition in 2010 which the City Administrator drives. The vehicle assigned to me has been fitted for emergency response where it is used to block streets during crisis. Additionally, my husband does happen to be a fire captain trained as an EMT, so having a radio and lights in that specific vehicle, we are able to sometimes be first on the scene which has resulted in lives saved. If he was not an EMT, then the car would likely be parked permanently at City Hall where all city employees have access to it – just as they do now because it is a community vehicle.
If the residents demand it, I will idle the vehicle and have one less first responder available for calls, a responder available at no cost to the citizens.
7. Why do the police leave their cars running while they’re not driving them all the time? Doesn’t that waste gas?
Police are required to have their cars “drive-ready” at all times. This does cost a lot of gas money, but it also ensures a quick response. I am talking to Chief Boyd about this practice because it takes less than five seconds to get a key in an ignition and start an engine. I think this could be a great suggestion on one way to save money.
8. What are you doing to bring retail and nice restaurants to La Vergne?
This past week, the City Planner, a dual member of the Planning Commission & Economic Development Advisory Committee, Alderman Sherry Green, and Alderman Tom Broeker attended the annual meeting of the International Council of Shopping Centers. They prepared a very detailed packet that contained information about zoning, lots and large parcels available, city restrictions, the demographics of the population in a 5- and 10- mile radius of the city, and other valuable information needed for a company to consider locating here. As a result of their attendance and the subsequent meetings, two major retailers are considering locating in La Vergne. When these businesses make their final decision, be assured that residents will very pleased with the news.
9. Was there liability insurance to pay for the lawsuits that the city had to pay for? Where does that money come from?
Insurance does not cover legal losses due to racial discrimination or other discriminatory lawsuits. When the city lost the most recent litigation, then lost the appeal (and we were assured we’d lose a second appeal), it cost the city roughly $850,000. The money was paid from the reserve funds of the water department because the accusations were made from that department. That account had $14 million just five years ago. Between the lawsuits and the subsidies paid on behalf of LaVergne consumers, that amount is now about $3 million.
10. Why do the city employees have such good benefits? Why not cut the benefits packages that they receive?
City workers earn a range of minimum wage to $75,000 p/year (city administrator). Police start out at $30,000 p/year – a trifling amount for someone willing to put their life on the line every day. Because salaries are generally low compared to other municipalities and the private sector, the city does offer a good health care package as a way to keep qualified employees.
11. What are you doing about these previously unfunded mandates? Is there any way to get rid of them?
The biggest unfunded mandate is for the fire department. The previous administration passed a contract that increased the amount paid to the company so that by the end of the contract, they will be getting roughly $4 million per year. I voted “no” on this because I did not feel that the money in question focused enough on man-power issues and more on items that I did not feel the city should have paid in contract form. The Board passed the contract in October 2010 even with my “no” vote and has been signed, so we are locked in.
12. Why aren’t you closing the Senior Center or doing away with all these programs parks and rec offer?
Do you really want to live in a town like Lesley Knope? Where there are no ball teams for children, no extracurricular activities, no playgrounds, no bathrooms available, no grass mowed in the city parks? Really?
13. Why did Senna Mosley vote against taxes before, but wants to raise taxes now?
First, there was never a vote on raising the taxes. I expressed concern over not knowing how the money from a tax increase would be used. No answers were ever given to me on whether they were raising the money to pay for more police, more fire, to improve roads, to put in new sewer lines. There was no vote ever taken and because I was the lone dissension, it would have passed had it been voted on.
14. The city received more money from property taxes in 2008 than it received in 2001 because we have a ton more people/homes. That money clearly wasn’t being spent wisely. What is being done to ensure those mistakes aren’t repeated?
Before I was elected mayor, the budget process was nothing more than we walked into the meeting room, a thick packet was dropped in front of us, the former leadership immediately called for a vote, and it was approved with barely the benefit of questioning the different departments, much less line items. We truly are being more transparent with our current budgeting process. We have made sure the budgets are available online for anyone to see. All of our budget hearings were open, recorded, and televised and I intend to continue that throughout my tenure in office.
15. The summary shows that at the end of year without the increase, there would be $3.7mil left in the bank account, but with the increase there is $5.8mil left. That means of the additional $4mil, $2mil is just being put in the bank. So instead of going up to $1.00, why not just go up to $.75 this year?
After that first year, yes … there will be a surplus. But since it is taking 18 years to get one single tax increase, it is obvious there will not be another for at least a decade. This rate allows us to rebuild our reserve account should major emergencies arise. The money is being built for major infrastructure projects. We have to fix our roads. We have to replace old, dilapidated equipment. We have to be able to function and that’s what this does.
We are not making all repairs in one year. This is spread out over several years, so yes there may be money left, but next year the price goes up. I encourage you to look at our five- and ten-year plan to see that nothing is being wasted.
I am doing the things that people have been requesting for years and years and years. Weather sirens. Fix roads. More police. More codes people to take care of tall grass and junky yards and businesses. And now that I’m doing them, I am catching hell for trying to provide the services that people have been demanding. Let it be known, this is a tax increase that you will probably never see again. And as long as I am in office, I will tell you where every single penny is going. If people don’t want me in three years, so be it. I will know that I have done what I was asked to do. Fix this city – fiscally, physically, and with no regrets.
16. Can the city come out and mow Steve Noe’s yard?
I hope this answers all of your questions.
Mayor Senna Mosley