City budget OK’d with no vehicle tax

By Tom Joyce -

Mount Airy officials approved a 2016-2017 city budget Thursday afternoon, one that leaves a controversial $15 vehicle tax by the wayside.

The vote by the Board of Commissioners was 4-1, with Commissioner Jon Cawley dissenting. It occurred during a special budget workshop at City Hall, the third such session held to iron out the figures since June 8.

In contrast to the first two that ran for hours before becoming deadlocked, Thursday’s gathering that included council members, City Manager Barbara Jones, and heads of municipal departments lasted only about 10 minutes.

In concluding the previous meeting Monday, the commissioners had instructed the city manager to reduce the budget by $750,000 in order to require less money being taken from Mount Airy’s general fund balance, also known as its savings or surplus.

The chief concern sparking that directive was a proposed across-the-board pay raise for municipal employees which would have been accompanied by an increase of about $800,000 in personnel costs for the upcoming fiscal year that begins on July 1.

Cawley, along with opposing the across-the-board nature of the pay increase, as did at least two other commissioners, had argued that the hike in personnel expenditures couldn’t be supported in upcoming years without severally reducing the fund balance.

That posed the dilemma of either drastically raising property taxes to get operational revenues more in line with expenditures, which officials were reluctant to support, or cutting spending.

At the start of Thursday’s meeting, the city manager reported that $832,698 — rather than $750,000 — had been slashed as a result of efforts by Jones and other staff members since Monday.

This will result in using about $2.4 million from the fund balance, with the commissioners on Monday saying they wanted no more than $2.5 million earmarked from that category. When the proposed budget was first released in May, $3.1 million was projected to be used from the fund balance.

Board members say they believe such actions for next year and in the near future will help nudge the city toward a fully balanced budget.

One factor in making the budget reduction possible was spreading out the raises over three years, instead of two, which had been settled on earlier. The city manager said this resulted in a change of $308,849 in what was previously presented.

Jones said the personnel budget has been set so that employees will receive a 3-percent raise on July 1, then if eligible for anything additional, this will be given during a performance evaluation. She said Thursday that this moves the city closer to a merit pay system supported by board members rather than across-the-board raises.

The pay raise proposal stemmed from a survey showing Mount Airy employees’ pay averages about 11 percent behind those in similar localities across the state, with local police, fire and sanitation personnel especially lagging behind their counterparts elsewhere.

Another personnel-related change brought forward by Jones Thursday afternoon is the elimination of Christmas bonuses for city workers, representing a $45,000 expense.

Vehicle tax stalls

A proposed 4-percent hike in water and sewer rates was left intact in the 2016-2017 municipal budget, which will increase the bill of the average in-city residential customer by $26.16 annually.

However, a $15 tax on all registered vehicles — which the commissioners said they had heard more feedback from citizens about than any other part of the budget — was slashed. It was clear early on that the consensus among board members was for eliminating that charge, but it stayed alive due to concerns about generating needed revenue.

Under the plan, $5 of that tax — being allowed by North Carolina localities for the first time — could have been used for any purpose. The remaining $10 would have been required to be spent on maintenance, repair and other needs of local streets which aren’t on the state highway system.

It would have applied to cars, trucks, campers, trailers and motorcycles — anything with a tag.

Jones said that with the reductions, the 2016-2017 budget totals $13,636,672, which is 1.14 percent less than the present 2015-2016 fiscal year budget adopted in June 2015 and 6.83 percent less than that budget including adjustments made during the year.

Cawley explanation

After Thursday’s decision, Cawley said his lone dissenting vote reflected lingering concerns about the budget.

“Well, I was pulling for a balanced budget,” he explained. “What we keep doing is putting money into the deficit that is operational.”

When approving the budget Thursday afternoon, the board — at the urging of Commissioner Jim Armbrister — agreed to hold a financial workshop in October, after the books are closed for the 2015-2016 budget year.

Armbrister said this will allow city officials to get an early start on the budgetary process for 2017-2018, and make plans and set priorities to avoid another deadlock such as that occurring recently.

Cawley sees this as a positive step toward achieving a balanced budget.

“The meeting in October maybe will allow that for next year,” he said.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

By Tom Joyce

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