CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - Charlotte City Council voted 9-2 Monday night for a budget that raises police pay but also has the city's first property tax increase since 2013.
The tax increase raises the city tax rate by one penny, to 48.84 cents for every $100 of taxable property. Mecklenburg County is also considering a tax increase of three-fourths of a penny, its first hike in five years.
If the county increase is approved, the owner of a $250,000 home would pay $44 more a year in total, with $25 going to the city and $19 going to the county.
The council's nine Democrats all voted for the budget, and the two Republicans — Ed Driggs and Tariq Bokhari — voted no.
Both Republicans praised the budget, and at one point, Bokhari said the police pay increases were a near "masterpiece." But they said they could not support a budget that contained a tax increase.
"I can't accept the fact that a tax increase is necessary, at a time when the economy is booming and the property base is growing rapidly through organic growth," Driggs said. "I wanted to see a budget without a tax increase."
Since City Manager Marcus Jones first proposed his budget last month, council members have been debating how much money should be directed toward boosting police pay. Police Chief Kerr Putney has said he is struggling to recruit and retain officers, and his vacancy rate is nearly 10 percent.
The Fraternal Order of Police had asked the city for an across-the-board 15 percent pay raise. Jones initially proposed an average 6.5 percent pay increase.
After push back from officers that the city wasn't doing enough, Jones put another $552,000 toward police pay. That's on top of the $11.5 million increase originally proposed.
Officers early in their careers will receive larger raises under the plan passed Monday compared with the manager's first plan. Their higher pay will be funded, in part, by using money that had been set aside for the most senior officers.
The starting salary today for an officer is just under $43,000. That will increase to $46,350. If an officer has a four-year degree, the starting salary will be just under $51,000.
Bokhari said he wished the city could have found more money for officers who have reached the final "step" in their career ladder.
"I'm a 'no' vote, but I don't want anyone to get the impression there isn't a lot in this budget to be proud of," he said.
Julie Eiselt, the Democratic mayor pro tem, said the tax increase was necessary. She said the surge of new residents is bringing new tax revenue, but that the city's growth also requires capital investments, such as new police stations.
"We get to this breaking point," Eiselt said. "At some point you have to add a police station or a pump station. You have to make capital investments."
There are other areas where the budget is different from past years.
One is pedestrian and bicycle safety.
In past years, the city has spent $7.5 million a year to build new sidewalks. The budget approved Monday calls for the city to ask voters to approve a $30 million bond in November, which would fund $15 million for sidewalks in each of the next two years.
In the past, there has been no dedicated money for the city's bicycle program. It will get $4 million this year.
In addition, the city will spend $2 million this year on a program called Vision Zero, which aims to have no traffic, pedestrian or bike fatalities in the city.
The other area that will receive significantly more money is affordable housing. The city usually asks voters to approve a $15 million housing bond every two years. Mayor Vi Lyles asked Jones to ask voters for $50 million this November.
Democratic council member Justin Harlow said the $50 million is a good start, but more money needs to spent in the future.
"We know that $50 million is a drop in this $1 billion bucket," Harlow said.
Harlow also touted a new $500,000 pilot program to give low-income seniors help in paying their property taxes next year.
In addition to the tax increase, homeowners also face an increase in their water bills and stormwater fees. The average homeowner would pay about $23 more a year on the water bill, and $9 a year in stormwater fees.