Priorities, not pavement, took center stage Monday at a special city hall meeting in Florence intended to solicit public feedback about a proposed Fifth St. renovation.
More than a dozen concerned citizens jammed the council meeting room to question how Florence could afford its half of the estimated $600,000 price tag, and argue that other issues, such as town blight and housing, should take precedence over the street repair.
“Where are we going to get $300,000? Anybody got any bright ideas?” Leonard Ellis asked.
Council member Randy Mills said the only viable approach would be to increase the mill levy for property taxes.
“It will have to be a mill levy increase, there will be no other ifs, ands, or buts about it,” Mills said. “We can’t tell you right at this moment what that will be.”
Mills said the increase could be anywhere from 15 to 20 mills. At current valuations, a 20 mill increase would generate $32,200 for the city annually, and increase the tax on an individual $40,000 home by $800 a year.
“There’s no way to know for certain what it will raise the taxes; a lot of that depends on county valuation,” council member Trayce Warner said.
“People, I can’t afford higher taxes,” Ellis said. “I struggle every November to pay my taxes as it is.”
“Florence has 52 percent of the community living at low-to-moderate income,” Warner said. “We all know most of the people are retired, most of the people are here are on some kind of pension or social security. It would pinch people on a fixed income.”
An unidentified woman said raising taxes would cause more people to default on their tax payments.
“What are you going to get if you raise taxes? You’re going to get more people who aren’t paying,” she said.
Warner said the city has a delinquency rate of 26 percent.
The proposed project would involve resurfacing Fifth St. between Doyle and Main Sts., replace drainage structures across Main, and build curb and gutters east of Main. Some present said issues like economic development, blight, and housing should take priority.
Judy Mills, who operates Doyle Creek Mercantile on Main St., said she saw little immediate benefit to doing the project.
“If you fix up Fifth St. for people to come into town and they come down this hill on a really nice Fifth St., what are they going to get to when they get to the stop sign? What are they coming into town for? Nothing but a bunch of empty buildings,” Mills said. “My business is not going to do one bit better.”
Jeff Lee, pastor of the Florence Methodist Church, decried the lack of quality housing in town.
“We paid to have an inspection done on a house in this community, and it failed inspection. It was the only fitting house I wanted my grandson to live in,” Lee said. “You can’t get young families to move in if they have no place to live. I’m all for the project if we can pay for it. But if it’s not going to generate growth in the community, we’re back to square one.”
“What good is a street going to do if nobody’s going to come?” Gary Welty said. “Let’s fix up the town so people will come down here to get something. Fix the blight first, then work on the street.”
Ellis said some homeowners were working to improve their properties.
“I see progress in this town,” Ellis said. “There are people who care, and who try to keep their property up. I see people struggling to try to make a difference, and I think they should be commended for it.”
Darin Neufeld of EBH and Associates was present to discuss the company’s preliminary cost estimates and project details, and he said the company is always looking for options to supplement funding.
“If there’s any way to accomplish what the city council has asked us to take a look at and find a way to add another grant program or loan program, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Neufeld said.
Welty said townspeople should vote on the project.
“Instead of leaving it to four or five people to make this decision, I think it ought to be up to the public,” Welty said. “Have a town hall meeting, present it to the people who come, and let the people actually vote on it.”
Since the purpose of the meeting was to receive public comments, the council took no action regarding the proposed project.