Wanted — citizen input on budget priorities

By Tom Joyce - tjoyce@civitasmedia.com

Public opinion could be the deciding factor in how the city of Mount Airy’s budget for 2016-2017 takes shape.

That was how things ended Wednesday when city officials held a budget workshop in the Municipal Building, which concluded with several unanswered questions — and no formal action on the spending plan for the next fiscal year that begins on July 1.

The Board of Commissioners could not reach a consensus on issues including a possible raise for municipal employees that would involve personnel costs increasing by 8 percent, or about $800,000. The impasse centered on what should occur with that proposal, along with other issues regarding the direction city revenues and expenses ought to take in the near future.

With the commissioners being unprepared to vote on the budget and seemingly at a loss in settling those issues, the board’s Jon Cawley suggested that citizen feedback might help. He explained that news coverage of Wednesday’s session hopefully will prompt citizens to contact the commissioners to voice their preferences on budget priorities.

Such feedback, Cawley continued, could provide key details for city officials to consider as they think more about the issues over the next few days before the budget workshop reconvenes Monday morning.

(Contact information for Mount Airy’s elected officials is listed in the opinion section of today’s edition on page 4.)

Areas of concern

The proposed across-the-board salary increase for city employees would help bring certain workers city officials considered underpaid closer to what others in similar jobs are paid elsewhere.

Yet the 8 percent increase in personnel costs eyed for 2016-2017 also would include Christmas bonuses, it was revealed Wednesday, when there was discussion on possibly implementing the salary hikes over multiple fiscal years.

In addition to that possible expenditure, the commissioners are searching for direction on other issues to balance revenues and expenditures, including:

• Whether property taxes should be increased for next year from the present rate of 48 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, in order to fund the raises and maintain city services at their present level. (No tax hike presently is proposed in the budget.)

• Should a new $15 vehicle tax, or one of some other figure, be imposed to help improve the revenue situation, with $5 of that to go to the general fund and the other $10 for street maintenance or improvements?

• Would citizens favor a reduction in municipal services in lieu of more revenue being developed, and in what areas? One idea Wednesday was ending a free service in which sanitation crews pick up tree limbs and other yard waste, and instead begin charging for that.

“We’re going to have some tough decisions to make,” Commissioner Dean Brown said.

But Brown pointed to the value citizen input can add to that process, a lesson the commissioner said he learned the hard way in 2008.

That’s when water and sewer rates were last hiked by Mount Airy officials, which involved a 7-percent increase with the adoption of the city budget in June 2008. Unlike this year, when a proposed 4-percent utility hike is universally acceptable to the commissioners, the one eight years ago was highly controversial.

Brown recalled Wednesday that he cast the deciding 3-2 vote to approve the budget that year and the accompanying water-sewer increase.

The senior member of the board indicated Wednesday that he had not adequately weighed the resulting impact on large water users such as cleaning businesses, which more citizen input could have enlightened him about before the vote.

“And I caught hell for two years.”

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

By Tom Joyce


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