Pilot Mountain has a problem, one that’s been looming on the horizon, growing ever closer year by year.
The town doesn’t have enough money coming in to match the expenses going out.
This is not new. For years the town has been spending more than it’s been taking in, and the board of commissioners, by and large, has been unwilling to address this, preferring instead to allow the town to sink further and further into a financial hole.
To be fair, some of the urgency of the problem is out of the board members’ hands. In 2014 the General Assembly banned the imposition and collection of what are called business privilege license, which are essentially local taxes on businesses. This has had a significant effect on municipal governments throughout the state, and Pilot Mountain is no exception.
Even before the General Assembly action, however, Pilot Mountain had been operating in what might be called a fiscally irresponsible manner.
The town has been collecting a $3 monthly fee from residents for garbage collection services, yet the town has been paying out $8 a month per resident to the vendor supplying the service. The town is spending $200,000 a year more to supply water and sewer services than it’s collecting in water and sewer fees.
The town’s general fund balance is dwindling, with more money going out than coming in through local taxes. And it’s that general fund which is already dropping that the town uses to pay the expenses of the money-losing water, sewer, and garbage collection services.
That is a recipe for disaster, one that can’t continue indefinitely.
To their credit, the town’s present commissioners have taken a few painful but necessary steps toward resolving these problems. The board approved water and sewer hikes this year, enough to at least make revenue equal to operating expenses, though there’s still not enough money coming in for major repairs or needed capital improvements.
The board hiked the trash collection fee to $7 a month, though that makes little since since simply going to $8 would make that service self-sufficient. While $1 more each month won’t break a household budget, all those extra dollars together would be a significant amount of money for the town.
The board raised tax rates by 3 cents per $100 of assessed value, which no one ever wants to do, but not enough to make the general fund self-sufficient.
The commissioners also cut the already slim police department budget and eliminated the state-required finance officer position, a move that is sure to attract the attention of state auditors.
For town residents, these are painful moves, seeing fees and tax rates go up. It’s clear the commissioners don’t want to make all of these increases because they know individuals will be hurt — some of whom are already scrimping and struggling and barely surviving.
But in the end, it’s the board members job to run the town in a financially responsible manner, and that means not running the town’s budgets at a deficit. It also means not eliminating state-mandated positions and, perhaps, not cutting police budgets while increasing feel-good requests such as those by the town library.
Being a commissioner is never easy, and that is never so true as when tough budget decisions have to be made. It’s been disappointing to watch various Pilot Mountain officials over the years kick this can down the road, unwilling to make tough decisions. While it is heartening to see this board finally take on some of those funding issues, it’s still got to be discouraging for town residents to have a board that’s still not willing to tackle all of the needs.