BURLINGTON — The Burlington City Council passed a series of utility tax increases Thursday, nearly eight months after the idea was first presented.
This came after discussion of a new tax on any business revenue exceeding $1 million devolved into a shouting match, resulting in a proposal from Mayor Steve Sexton to delay a vote until the next council meeting July 9.
After several failed proposals, the council eventually agreed in a 4-3 vote to increase two utility taxes and institute a third.
Gas and electricity taxes were increased from 3% to 6%, and a 6% tax on cable TV was established. Together, the taxes will bring in an estimated $612,000 annually, according to city documents.
City Administrator Greg Young said this new revenue is a step toward spreading the tax burden in the city and addressing the city’s financial trouble that has only been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.
While rarely a supporter of new taxes, City Council member Bill Aslett said the city’s financial situation demands action.
He said the need for new revenue has been made clear by staff, and the council needs to be ready to make the “hard decisions.”
Even with these increases, Burlington still has the lowest utility tax rates of any city in the county, as well as comparatively low property taxes, he said.
The council debated increases to sewer, water and stormwater utility taxes as well, but those increases didn’t have the support to pass.
Council member Joe DeGloria voted against the increases, saying the council can’t pass a tax hike like this during the economic uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Families have had very inconsistent paychecks for months,” he said, adding many were already struggling before COVID, and have “had the hammer completely dropped on them.”
Council member Scott Green said the need for some kind of new revenue is clear.
“We are in a dire situation here,” he said.
There will be a 60-day delay before the new taxes go into effect, giving residents time to apply for a waiver or reduction, he said.
The council once again delayed a vote on the proposed business and occupation tax on revenue exceeding $1 million, which depending on the tax rate chosen would bring an estimated $375,000 to $1.5 million annually.
According to Young, 138 businesses in Burlington would be impacted by this tax.
Before a conversation on the merits of the proposal could begin, City Council member James Stavig pushed to delay the vote two more weeks, because he felt residents weren’t aware of the vote and would feel blindsided.
Tempers quickly boiled over, with Young expressing his frustration with the months of delay on this proposal.
“We’ve talked this to death,” he said.
Young said each time he’s brought this proposal to the council, council members find a reason to delay the vote.
“(If you keep delaying) pretty soon you’re doing nothing,” he said. “I don’t want to be in a city that’s doing nothing.”
“You pay me for my opinion,” he added. “That’s my opinion.”
Stavig responded, saying he felt the city overpays Young, and that it can’t afford “six-figure salaries.”
Young makes $151,292 per year, a wage based on salaries for similar positions in similar cities. Like the rest of the city’s staff, he took a 10% pay cut to shrink costs after the pandemic began.
Sexton then asked for a council member to make a motion tabling the topic until the next meeting, saying the discussion had devolved into personal barbs. This motion passed 4-3, with the dissenting council members saying they can’t keep avoiding the hard decisions.