Meals tax, water rates rise; cigarette tax hike nixed

The Valley Banner

ELKTON — Town Council voted last Monday to raise Elkton’s meals tax and its water and sewer rates in support of the $5.66 million budget it unanimously passed for fiscal year 2018 but held off on plans to raise its tariff on cigarettes.

And within hours — after most people had headed home as the panel entered executive session — council members emerged from a closed meeting and set the town employee pay raise at 2.5 percent, half the amount originally budgeted in the budget for raises.

Wayne Printz, Elkton’s mayor and acting town manager, had proposed for an average 5 percent raise. Printz said last Tuesday morning that the pay hike was sliced in a vote following the closed session.

Councilman Harry Armbruster, chairman of the council’s personnel committee, said the vote setting the raise percentage was unanimous.

The move to trim employee raises was surprising because neither members of council nor the public had raised serious questions about the plan for a 5 percent increase.

The amount was referenced briefly in at least one meeting since Printz presented the draft budget on May 22 but never discussed at length in public.

It was unclear Tuesday whether the raise discussion occurred in the executive session or after council re-entered open session afterward.

If the discussion was held in executive session, it likely violated the Freedom of Information Act. The act allows governing bodies to address personnel matters related to specific employees behind closed doors, but not broad personnel matters such as across-the-board pay discussions.

One Increase Nixed
Before the action to set the rates, council voted unanimously to raise the meals tax to 7 percent from 6 percent and up water and sewer rates across the board by 2.5 percent. The changes take effect with the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. The panel has touted the utility hikes as a “cost of living” adjustment agreed to by a previous council as a way for the town to keep pace with inflation. In addition to Armbruster, council members Jay Dean, Steve America, Joshua Gooden, Margaretta Isom and Jeff Jones supported the actions.

Resident Haze Crider, who did not attend last week’s public hearing on the tax and rate hikes, lambasted council for even considering increasing water and sewer rates during the public comment period, saying some residents can’t afford to pay more. “I’d like to know what is wrong with our budget,” she said, “that you think you need to increase water and sewer.” Crider went on to say it was “asinine to have discussed it.” While two rates and a tax were upped, council extinguished a plan to increase the cigarette tax by 10 cents, from 20 to 30 cents a pack, when no one made a motion to approve the increase.

Printz said the increase would hurt town merchants by providing an incentive for smokers to buy from stores in unincorporated Rockingham County, where there’s no extra tax on cigarettes.
After the meeting, he said the extra money expected from that tax hike was made up when meals taxes were recalculated with up-to-date data that show it producing more revenue than previously projected.

Recycling Quandary
The panel also voted 6-0 to lease three new trucks for the Public Works Department to replace wornout vehicles and 5-1 to spend $8,800 in economic development funds for decorative street lights, with Armbruster casting the dissenting vote. Council members also delayed a decision on renewing a recycling contract.

Troy Shifflett, the town’s public works director, said the truck was tailed Friday and picked up recycling bins at 185 of the town’s 1,137 households, roughly one in six, though some homes had multiple bins. But the town would be charged $2.85 for each household in its limits, or $38,885 per year. Questions were raised as to whether the use justifi ed the expense.

Joey Gooden spoke in favor of keeping the program in place. “At my house,” he said, “I have more recycling trash than I have trash trash.”

Among the resolutions discussed was the potential for town employees to pick up recycling. If that happened, Shifflett said, the nearest recycling center is in Fishersville.

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