Lessie Price, Aiken City Council, Millage

Aiken City Council member Lessie Price reacts to comments made during City Council's Monday night work session.

After weeks of review, a bit of back-and-forth debate, a handful of drafts and an amended ordinance, the Aiken City Council has decided to maintain the city's existing millage rate moving forward.

City Council on Monday night gave unanimous final approval to a millage rate of 62 for fiscal year 2019-20, pivoting away from a prior pitch. City Council member Andrea Gregory was absent from both the meeting and vote.

Last month, City Council gave preliminary approval to a millage rate of 64. Millage is used to calculate property taxes.

"After discussing with Council, we are recommending no millage increase to our general fund budget," reads in part a briefing document included in City Council's meeting packet. A budget featuring no millage increase was discussed last week during a City Council budget work session.

The now-null 2-mill increase would have reaped roughly $350,000, according to City Council meeting minutes. The increase would have meant an extra $13.20 taxed on a $165,000 home.

The city has not had a millage increase in three decades. City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh has said the city relied on growth – blunted recently – to offset the difference. That's getting harder and harder to do these days, City Council member Ed Woltz said in a brief interview prior to the regular meeting.

City Council on Monday night also signed off on the budget for the next fiscal year. City Council votes on the budget and millage rate, although closely related, independently.

The stay-the-course millage rate was cemented amid a cluster of other rate and fee increases, a point City Council member Ed Girardeau has played up in recent meetings.

"He feels it is inevitable to have to raise the millage rate, but he would prefer deferring it to next year and raising it to 3 mills," City Council minutes state.

City Council member Gail Diggs has expressed concern about taxpayer burden, as well.

Higher water and sewer rates went into effect June 1. City Council on Monday night approved an increase to the solid waste fee as well as an increase to the stormwater rate.

The city's solid-waste services comprise trash, recycling and yard waste.

Both newly approved hikes will be effective July 1, Bedenbaugh said.

In other news, City Council approved the first reading of a redevelopment plan and related rezoning for the old Aiken County hospital property. The vote was not unanimous.

WTC Investments LLC has proposed razing the properties at 828 Richland Ave. W. and 159 Morgan St. N.W. – near downtown – and building a boutique hotel, a conference center, a garage, residential housing and walking trails, among other things.

The plan is controversial and has been publicly lashed during hearings, Monday night included. Critics of plans to recapitalize the tract have called for preservation and tasteful reuse.

City Council member Dick Dewar on Monday said he "likes the looks" of the project but cautioned it's likely not ready for full City Council assessment. City Council member Lessie Price, speaking after Dewar, emphasized a redevelopment's potential positive influence on the Northside, both financial and cultural.

The Planning Commission last month unanimously recommended the concept plan and rezoning to City Council. The recommendation, though, came with a dose of conditions.

Some of the hospital property, vacant for years now, dates back to the 1930s.

Colin Demarest is the government and Savannah River Site reporter with the Aiken Standard. Follow him on Twitter: @demarest_colin