Mount Airy residents will see a 4-cent decrease in the property tax rate and no hike in water and sewer charges under the city’s proposed budget for 2014-2015.
In order to balance the spending plan for the next fiscal year beginning on July 1, $2.5 million would be taken from the municipality’s general fund balance, or savings.
The preliminary budget calls for property taxes to be slashed from 52 to 48 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.
When presenting the budget proposal at a Mount Board of Commissioners meeting Thursday night, City Manager Barbara Jones said it reflected directives given by the board at an annual planning retreat during the winter.
That included the 4-cent tax reduction, as well as something the commissioners didn’t specifically request at the retreat: a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for municipal employees, numbering 172. The increase, coming on the heels of a 2 percent raise last year, would not apply to those on probation as new hires, under disciplinary action or who have received marginal reviews.
The budget package includes a $115,000 allocation for stepped-up enforcement of minimum housing violations, another board directive. That will cover one extra day per week for code enforcement personnel of the private firm contracted to supply planning services to the city government, plus money for legal and administrative fees for court actions that arise.
“This is a planning document,” Jones said in stressing that the spending proposal represents the best attempt by her and budget aides to meet the city’s needs and commissioner objectives and still cut taxes. “It is the best planning document that my team and I can put together.”
The proposed general fund budget, for regular municipal operations, totals $13,067,342. That is less than 1 percent higher than the budget for this (2013-2014) fiscal year, $12,973,817.
A separate water-sewer fund stands at $5,754,296 for the next fiscal year, slightly less than this year’s $5,768,826.
The general fund package includes $729,939 for capital outlay (building- and equipment-related) needs. “This funding does allow us to stay on target with the replacement of our police vehicles along with various equipment needs for most departments,” Jones’ budget message states.
Also included will be HVAC upgrades, storm-drainage replacement, street paving and the purchase of a knuckle boom grapple truck for the sanitation department, the latter a projected $140,000 expense. Money also is earmarked to begin an upgrade of the city’s water-sewer infrastructure.
Funding proposed for outside agencies includes $102,650 to the regional library system to support operations of the Mount Airy Public Library, $87,500 to the Surry Arts Council and $10,000 to Mount Airy Museum of Regional History.
After receiving the budget plan Thursday night, the commissioners set a public hearing for June 5 at 7 p.m., when citizens can have their say on the proposal.
Dipping Into Savings
The idea of using some of the city’s “surplus,” or fund balance, to the tune of $2.5 million was another move heartily backed by at least some of the commissioners during earlier budget discussions. At last report, that fund contained $11.9 million available to spend, well above state recommendations for the savings percentage a municipality should maintain in relation to its yearly expenditures.
Board members had said they would be willing to delegate up to about $3.3 million from it toward the 2014-2015 budget, based on the cushion the size of that fund allowed.
There have been some comments that taxpayers’ money is involved and the intent should be giving them a break, through such measures as the 4-cent tax cut, rather than building up a huge savings officials can brag about.
A similar scenario occurred in 2013 when $2.03 million from the general fund balance was appropriated to supplement this fiscal year’s budget. However, none of that reportedly has had to be used so far due to the tight management of city finances.
Still, there was concern Thursday night about not allowing the raiding of the surplus fund to become a habit. In 2008, Mount Airy’s savings fell to such a dangerously low level that it drew scrutiny from the state treasurer.
“I hope that we will discuss this a little bit further before the budget is adopted,” Jones said Thursday night regarding use of those funds.
Commissioner Jon Cawley welcomes public input on that issue.
“The revenues and expenditures don’t match,” he said of the fact that municipal expenses can’t be covered through normal taxation channels and require dipping into the savings.
Cawley said the city can’t continue to depend on the surplus at the rate of $2.5 million per year to supplement revenues. “At this rate, we won’t be able to go on too long,” he commented.
“I really do hope the public will speak to us about the budget.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-719-1924 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.