The City of Charleston will be holding taxes at the same level next year, even as city staff call 2009 the toughest budget in 33 years. The city will dip into its reserves, to the tune of more than $2 million, due to an expected loss in revenues, the first year-to-year loss in decades. There is an increase in spending by only $719,000 — last year’s nearly $147 million budget included increased spending of more than $8.3 million.

“We just can’t raise taxes, with the pinch that everyone is feeling, that would just be the wrong signal to send,” says Mayor Joe Riley.

Property tax collections, construction permits, business licences, state aid, and tourism revenue are all expected to fall this year. Construction permits alone have dropped by more than 45 percent since 2006.

The budget includes 20 new public safety workers, including 12 additional firefighters expected to be hired in late 2009. That will mean 45 new positions added to the fire department since June 2007, when the city lost nine firefighters in the Sofa Super Store blaze.

Travel, training, office supplies, and cutbacks on hiring have all been put in place. Employees making over $60,000 will go without cost-of-living salary adjustments. But all police and fire staff will receive a flat 1.5 percent increase. Mayor Joe Riley will receive the 3 percent annual increase promised in his contract, but plans to refund that money to the city every quarter.

And don’t look to 2010 to be better.

“It may be that the budget for next year will be just as challenging,” Riley says.

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