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.