Village tax levy, yes or no?
- Published: April 21, 2011
About 25 villagers came out of the sun and into the Senior Center on Sunday to join a lively discussion about the Village property tax levy that will be on the ballot on May 3. Many were there to support a levy that will allow the Village to continue its current level of public services and amenities, which they said draws both business and residents to Yellow Springs. Others came to see evidence of the economic development that has occurred in the village since they voted for the last property tax levy and to demand that Village leaders show greater fiscal accountability before asking for more money.
The forum, sponsored by the James A. McKee Group and the Lions Club and moderated by Bruce Heckman, began with a presentation by Yellow Springs Yes Levy Renewal Committee member Lisa Abel on the parameters of the levy. The 8.4-mill five-year property tax renewal levy will provide $760,000 annually to the Village general fund, or 25 percent of the fund, to pay for Village police and safety, parks, government, streets, planning and economic development, Bryan Center, and land and energy conservation.
Several villagers wanted to know what economic development had occurred in the village since voters approved the 2006 levy, which dedicated a little over 5 percent of levy revenue to economic development. Local resident Phyllis Schmidt also asked about the difference between economic development and economic sustainability. According to Village Council member Karen Wintrow, who proposed that Council use the term economic sustainability, economic sustainability is “the activity that would sustain the quality of life that we want in Yellow Springs…and support the services we want to provide for our citizens.”
Over the past five years, Wintrow said, the Village has continued to use funds to support Chamber of Commerce joint marketing and other activities, to partner with regional economic development group Business First, and pay staff to serve the needs of local businesses. In that time, Antioch University has committed to building new offices in the Midwest building at the Center for Business and Education, and the CBE itself has annexed the entrance road and made progress with engineering and infrastructure planned for the future business park. Village staff has also worked with the property owners of the Fogg farm, Village Station, Duckwall/Grushon chiropractic office, YSI and several smaller and potential new businesses to help with space issues, financing and planning. The Village also hired an economic sustainability coordinator 18 months ago, a move which was delayed by former Village Manager Eric Swansen’s resistance to hiring an extra staff person before he resigned and left the Village to deal with an interim manager and the search for a new manager, Wintrow explained.
“I wish Council had done a lot more, and we recognize that we can’t continue…to see our expenses rising,” Wintrow said. “But we can ask for people to pay for the services they’re getting, especially for those not earning wages,” she said, adding that Yellow Springs is the only municipality in Greene County that has not asked for outside property tax millage, meaning above what is mandated by the state.
Putting the Village’s budget in the context of the national recession is critical to understanding how to move forward, villager Marianne MacQueen said during the meeting.
“We need to remember that we’re in a cataclysmic economic time, and it’s nationwide,” she said. “If we don’t put everything that we do in the village in that context, we’re sunk.”
Wintrow agreed, stating that in spite of the business losses Yellow Springs has suffered over the past five years, including the closing of Antioch College and the relocation of most or all of the Antioch Company and the Wright State University Physicians office, the village has shown marked resilience.
“Another community likely could not have withstood that — the fact that we’re continuing pretty much on an even keel says a lot about this community,” she said.
MacQueen spoke in a hopeful manner about the potential for the current actions the Village is taking that will eventually draw businesses that serve the village’s needs. She believes that the future of Yellow Springs lies not with a few major corporations but with smaller businesses whose leaders and employees will bring both their entrepreneurial skills and their families here precisely because of the services and amenities that the village offers.
“Yellow Springs has to stop looking for the five medium-sized businesses that have sustained Yellow Springs in the past, and start looking for the 100 smaller businesses that will sustain us for the future,” MacQueen said.
Villager Steve McColaugh who works for E-Health Data Solutions agreed that the reason his company, which operates at MillWorks and recently expanded, stays in the village is because of its leaders’ commitment to a safe town that attracts skilled employees who want to live here.
But it is also true that other businesses, such as Laser Linc, have left Yellow Springs because of lack of affordable space in which to expand, Becky Campbell said during the meeting. And Schmidt believes that “unless and until” the village makes a substantial investment in growing the local economy and providing for the needs of businesses, the services will price local residents out of the village before new businesses can be drawn in. She remembers a comfortable time between 1950 and 1990 when the five major companies whose leaders lived here and invested both personally and as entrepreneurs in the local community balanced the expense of living in the village.
“That’s the kind of economic development I’d like to see created again,” she said.
Ron Schmidt wondered if increasing taxes in the community, which is already one of the highest tax paying communities in the area, in order to pay for public services could even be harmful to businesses considering locating in Yellow Springs.
The Village has made some cutbacks, reflected in a 2011 general fund budget of $3.28 million, which is leaner than 2010’s general fund budget of $3.67 million. But this year’s budgeted expenses are still higher than expected revenues of $2.73 million, according to Yes Committee charts. But the cuts have not been deep enough to satisfy Campbell, who said that while the Village made “promises” to allocate a certain percentage of the current levy proceeds to certain funds (such as 48 percent to the streets, about 15 percent each to the Bryan Center and the pool, and 11 percent to parks), the Village wasn’t legally obligated to spend the money on the parks and green space, for instance, if there was a greater need elsewhere.
“It’s not impossible for the money to be used where it needs to be used,” she said.
While the Village is not legally bound to allocate the levy funds in the manner specified, voters approved the levy with the understanding that the funds would be spent that way, Cundiff said during the meeting. And the Village did freeze the pay and reduce health benefit costs to most Village employees, as well as increasing pool fees and using some of the police department’s furtherance of justice funds for police needs.
Villager Patti Dallas asked why villagers who voted for the levy in 2006 seem opposed this time, and those who opposed it in 2006 speak in favor of it. While she has always voted for every Village, school and county levy that has come before her in the past, Schmidt echoed the concerns she raised earlier in the meeting that Council’s fiscal management is too loose as the reason for her opposition to the current levy. Villager Jennifer Reich said that she opposed the 2006 levy because of the fear-mongering way the levy was presented, but that in the current context of a tanking national economy, she felt called to support the local public need this time.
Yes Committee member Barry Reich got the last word of the day, stating the reason he felt the need to come out in an uncharacteristically public manner to support the levy. Compared to the other communities he has lived where taxes were quite high, he said, Yellow Springs is much better at leveraging its resources to support activities and facilities, such as the Bryan Center spaces, the skate park and the pool, that so many people use for a great variety of activities and community events.
“I’m disappointed so few people are here, but I’m beginning to think that maybe the levy is not such a huge issue after all,” he said. “People are happy to live here if they feel they’re getting value for their money. I feel I am and I’m voting for the levy.”