WINCHESTER — City Council on Tuesday approved its operating budget for fiscal year 2020, funded in part by increases to Winchester’s real estate and cigarette tax rates.

The $93,882,000 spending plan includes a 3-cent hike to the city’s real estate tax rate and a 15-cent addition to its 35-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes.

Council’s vote on the budget and its related tax increases largely followed party lines, with Democrats supporting the measures and most Republicans standing in opposition.

All four Republicans on the nine-member council voted against the 50-cents-per-pack cigarette tax rate, which City Manager Eden Freeman estimated would bring in an additional $150,000 in FY 2020. The existing rate nets the city an estimated $610,000 per year.

Council Democrats have said the tax increase is more about maintaining a healthy community than it is about raising money.

“The argument to raise this tax is to lessen the number of smokers in our community,” Councilor Judy McKiernan said last month.

“I don’t think it’s our position to judge the lifestyles of people,” Republican Councilor Les Veach said Tuesday night, adding that Winchester’s higher tax rate will merely encourage city smokers to make their purchases elsewhere.

Once the 50-cent cigarette tax rate was adopted, City Council cast its final vote on Winchester’s FY 2020 budget.

Again, Veach was critical of a tax increase.

“I think it’s irresponsible to put the burden on our citizens at this time,” he said about the budget’s 93-cent real estate tax rate.

Charging 93 cents for each $100 of a property’s assessed value equates to a 3-cent rate increase. The current real estate tax rate, which has been in place since 2015, is 91 cents. A citywide real estate reassessment last year placed higher values on properties, so Winchester would collect the same amount of tax revenue in FY 2020 if it lowered the rate to 90 cents.

“There are citizens in the city who, quite frankly, don’t want to see their taxes go up,” Republican Councilor Corey Sullivan said. “Those people need a voice, and that’s why I’m not going to support it.”

The $93,882,000 budget for FY 2020 was approved 6-3, with John Willingham being the only Republican to vote in favor of it. His fellow GOP members — Veach, Sullivan and Bill Wiley — opposed the budget’s adoption due to the real estate tax rate increase, while all five council Democrats — David Smith, Evan Clark, John Hill, Kim Herbstritt and McKiernan — supported the measure.

McKiernan, an employee of Winchester Public Schools, read a prepared statement prior to the vote that said her verdict on the budget’s adoption would not be influenced by her employment. The school system will receive $30,839,102 in operating funds from the city’s FY 2020 budget — a $350,000 increase from the current fiscal year but short of the $720,168 boost requested by the School Board.

The new city budget will take effect July 1, but the 93-cent real estate tax rate will be retroactively applied to all properties in Winchester as of Jan. 1.

Highlights of the FY 2020 budget include:

A 3-percent cost-of-living increase for all city staff, plus full premium coverage of employee-only insurance plans.

The issuance of $10.5 million in bonds to help Winchester Public Schools pay for the renovations of the former John Kerr Elementary School, which is being transformed into the Emil and Grace Shihadeh Innovation Center, and Douglas Community Learning Center, which will become the system’s new Central Administrative Offices.

A $126,200 funding boost to the Winchester Department of Social Services, necessitated in part by the growing number of foster children that have come under the department’s purview.

The creation of six full-time positions, including an additional firefighter/emergency medical technician for the Fire and Rescue Department, a mental health specialist for the Winchester Police Department, and a community arts and vitality manager for the Development Services Department.

The elimination of four full-time positions, including both employees in the Old Town Winchester management office, an assistant city attorney slot that has been vacant for more than a year, and an office position in the Winchester Sheriff’s Office that will be reduced to part-time.

$2.14 million for capital improvement projects, including drainage improvements on North Cameron Street, sidewalk repairs, new entryway signs, and design work on the final phase of Winchester’s Green Circle.

The budget for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, was $93,654,000 but included a one-time transfer from the city’s fund balance of $5,124,600. That means the actual budget for FY 2019 was $88,529,400.

— Contact Brian Brehm at bbrehm@winchesterstar.com

(6) comments

BenWeber

Well, if you didn’t think taxes were going up after the election voted in a majority of Democrats, you must be on a different realm of existence. Mark my words, this is only the beginning. Water rates are next and the “rain tax” will again come up. Followed by increased permitting fees for new business which will result in a continued decline in commercial revenue for the city. Once that happens, it will be the citizens who will have to carry the burden.

CRT

Republicans were in the majority for decades and yes, taxes went up.

Anna Thomson

This isn't political Ben. Republicans have raised taxes for years while having the majoity on council and on the board in the county. The massive bonded indebtedness of the city was not created by one political party. I agree with you that we don't want rates to go up, but creative ways to produce more revenue must be the first priority, instead of party name calling, which is beneath us in Winchester. Let us begin the journey by examining, once again, the massive number of properties that are off the tax roles. It seems to most of us, that any property owner, no matter who they are, should help maintain the streets, help pay for trash pick up, help pay for schools, infrastructure, and the costs of running the city. Addressing your other statement that businesses will leave and commercial revenue will decline because of increased permitting fees, where will they go, Inwood? Because of the investment Winchester City Council has made in the last 30 years to improve the downtown, improve services, along with 40 years of private efforts to preserve our unique historical heritage, it is highly doubtful anyone will leave. We are all mindful that competition exists with surrounding jurisdictions to attract businesses. However, It is clear that Winchester does have the edge because of the uniqueness and attractiveness of the city, not because of the fact that one political party has an edge. Lets drop the political name calling and get on with the gritty work of raising money to keep us the number one small city in the Commonwealth to live and work in.

Tate

Well said Anna!!!!

CTJINVA

Of course it's political! Votes were along party lines. How could one even think it's not. And I *LOVE* McKiernan's statement that she's not being influenced by the additional money she will receive from her job if the tax increase and budget are approved! It's lunacy to even begin to believe that. Now to be fair, WPS doesn't pay enough for this to be considered a windfall for her or her husband, but there's still cash that will be put into her pocket as a result of this vote, so it's hard to see how this is any different than what happens in Congress. Mrs. McKiernan knew that well enough, as she felt the need to read a statement before the vote (nothing to see here...move along). The right thing to to would have been to recuse herself from the vote, given that her family would directly benefit from it...

Jasba64

Ben, you are correct in everything you stated.

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