Beaufort Memorial Hospital's CEO and President Rick Toomey asked the approximately 100 people at Tuesday's Beaufort City Council meeting to stand up if they opposed a property fee on nonprofit groups, churches, schools and hospitals.
Almost everyone rose from the wooden pews.
City Council invited comments on the fiscal year 2014 budget, which will be approved by the end of the month, and residents and nonprofit organizations showed up in force to oppose the proposed fees.
Last month, city staff recommended council levy two new fees to offset an expected budget deficit.
The first is a $40 fee for all vehicles registered in the city, which would be used to pay for street maintenance.
The second is aimed at property owners who don't pay property taxes. Nonprofit groups, churches and schools would pay a public-service fee equal to 0.1 percent of a property's appraised value. The money would be used to support emergency-response services.
"I urge you, do not put a fee on churches and nonprofits," said Colden Battey, chairman of the finance committee for St. Peter's Catholic Church. "These are things that enrich our lives."
A combination of factors -- including the end of a special tax district downtown and an anticipated decrease in property tax value -- has the city grappling with a deficit estimated between $600,000 and $700,000, city manager Scott Dadson said. A more specific number will be available in August when the Beaufort County tax assessor releases results of a reassessment.
Resident Dot Gnann summed it up by saying "I've read your budget not once but twice, and you're in a mess."
"We were told the amount would be small and insignificant to our budget," Beaufort Hospital's Toomey said. "As reimbursement for medical services has decreased, we do not believe any fee is small or insignificant."
Alan Runyan of the Parish Church of St. Helena, and Paul Infinger of the Baptist Church of Beaufort, said fees have a tendency to increase once established.
"Once you get a foot in the door, sometimes its hard to get out," Infinger said.
Dr. Gina Mounfield, interim president of the Technical College of the Lowcountry, argued against the fee. She said education funding is decreasing and the school is already relying more on tuition to cover costs. The school does not need another expense, she said.
Council has not voted on the fees, but the general consensus among members was against the nonprofit fee.
Councilman George O'Kelley Jr. vehemently opposed it during a worksession earlier Tuesday. He and Councilman Mike Sutton suggested other areas of the budget to trim, including their own salaries.
"I just think there are things we can cut before we tax a church," O'Kelley, an active Parish Church member, said. "I will not vote for a budget that will tax a church."
Another work session might be scheduled for Monday to look at ways to trim and adjust the budget before the first vote Tuesday.