Despite pleas from more than a dozen seniors who said some of their poorest neighbors may now have to choose between tax obligations and basic necessities, the on Thursday voted 5-1 to create a special district that would help the city meet some of its long-term fire service needs and possibly shift some of that burden to elderly residents who have enjoyed a decade of voter-approved tax exemptions.
But Canton Mayor Gene Hobgood said it is "fairly likely" that he will veto the ordinance that establishes the district, which would include a 3.12 mill tax to improve the .
"I don't think it's legal," he said after Thursday's meeting. "I'm not sure you can take away a homestead exemption that was approved and granted by referendum."
The threat to that exemption, which applies to seniors who are at least 62 years old, drew so many members of that demographic to Thursday's meeting that some had to stand. Of the 17 speakers who signed up to speak during the 10-minute public comment period, more than a dozen people spoke about the fire district.
Over and over, seniors from Soleil Laurel Canyon, Great Sky and River Green said the exemption was the selling point that convinced many of them to move to the city.
"Has the council considered what this will do to those seniors that are just making ends meet, living on a meager Social Security income?" homeowner Arnie Kornblum asked. "Do these folks reduce their food consumption? Or reduce their medication to pay for this additional tax?"
Council member Bob Rush said the creation of the fire district doesn't immediately alter the city's tax structure, a conclusion that drew jeers from the audience.
"The one thing I would like to clarify is that we're voting on the creation of a fire district," he said. "We're not voting on imposing any particular tax. The tax, if it's going to be imposed, would be done at a later date after proper analysis is made. If we look at the numbers and we say it's not convenient, the fire district would be relatively irrelevant."
It was Rush who , after a plan to start formal city-county fire merger discussions was voted down at the June 21 meeting.
"If we merge with the county as you insist or we create a fire district, the tax that the people are going to pay is going to be the same amount of money," Rush told the mayor during the July 5 work session.
Rush said he'd rather see that money stay in the city than go to the county. As far as he and Council member Bill Bryan are concerned, the money collected from the fire district may not be enough to cover the cost of building a in the first year, but it would be a start.
"The first step is we have to start collecting money, setting it aside," Bryan said during the July 5 work session. "It's called savings, paying as you go. We have not done that in this city. We always just borrow it and then figure it out. We're changing that. We're going to start saving up to build a fire station."
The city might not have found itself in this position if not for bad management, a point that Soleil homeowner Steve Bloom raised during Thursday night's public comment period.
"Those of us who moved into Soleil, $2 million was given to this city to provide fire service and an additional station," he said. "I know the $2 million doesn't exist and many of you weren't around when that happened. But in today's day and age, from the local, the state and the federal level, voters are so upset and angry with our elected representatives who constantly want to find additional dollars when they haven't been able to manage what they already had."
But those passionate arguments weren't enough to sway council members. Council member Glen Cummins was the only dissenting vote.
The decision prompted seniors to walk out of the council chambers.
"Shame on you," a woman yelled to Rush as she exited the room.
Hobgood has 10 days from Thursday to veto the ordinance that creates the district. He said he will probably make his decision "by the middle of next week."
Previously, he said Rush's proposal was "somewhat of a scheme simply to bypass the will of the voters" who approved the senior tax exemption.
"This proposal will not provide enough revenue to meet the long-term needs of our fire service, but will only increase property taxes on everyone including seniors," he said during the July 5 work session.
Hobgood repeated that sentiment on Thursday night.
"The only thing that the district would do based on the ordinance that was adopted tonight is take away a senior exemption," Hobgood said. "There's nothing else that that district can do that we cannot do right now except take away the senior exemption."
If the mayor vetoes the fire district, a called council meeting will have to be arranged between the Aug. 2 work session and the Aug. 16 council meeting.
To watch video coverage of Thursday night's council meeting, click here.