Along with the citizens who spoke Thursday night during a public hearing on Mount Airy’s proposed 2015-2016 budget, City Manager Barbara Jones later took the unusual step of defending her budgeting process.
“We are not fabricating numbers — we are not doing anything with the numbers,” Jones said at the end of a city commissioners’ meeting when officials offered general comments.
“I feel I need to add some clarity to some things that have been stated regarding the budget,” the city manager said, apparently in response to comments by a citizen on May 21 that municipal officials were “playing games” with taxpayers’ money.
Former mayoral candidate Paul Eich then criticized a pattern of recent years in which various officials have used terms such as “bare-bones” and “tight” to describe Mount Airy’s financial situation which actually is much rosier than they indicate. Eich said despite such dire forecasts, the city always seems to not only stay afloat but add to its savings.
As a result, the city’s reserve, or surplus, fund now exceeds $13 million, $11.7 million of which is available to spend on any purpose officials see fit. Money has been allocated from that fund in recent years — including $2.5 million for the present fiscal year ending on June 30 — to supposedly make up for funding shortfalls that haven’t actually materialized, Eich said.
“Don’t keep taking our money to build reserves,” Eich told city officials during the May 21 meeting. “There is a limit here.”
In her remarks Thursday night, which were unannounced, Jones said that she wanted to remind everyone that a budget is a planning document that is not set in stone.
Jones, who became city manager in 2010, defended the city’s recent fiscal performance, compared to what was occurring in 2008.
At that time, when the reserve fund was only $2.9 million and below the North Carolina average for such revenue sources, Mount Airy received a warning letter from a state agency.
“Basically, the letter said, ‘it is time to get your finances in order,’” recalled Jones, who was then assistant city manager.
She also pointed out Thursday night that in 2007, Mount Airy’s property tax rate was 63 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The budget proposed for this coming fiscal year beginning on July 1 calls for the rate to remain at its present 48-cent level, along with no increase in water and sewer rates.
In addition to slashing taxes by 15 cents since 2007, the city government has enhanced services to residents while also building up its reserves, Jones said.
“If the economy takes a downturn again, then we have some money set aside to continue operations.”
This also will avoid any kind of state takeover of municipal operations if finances dip too low. “Because at that point, they will think you’re not capable of doing it yourself,” the city manager said.
Jones said that if judged by the standards of what constitutes a successful business, Mount Airy’s fiscal showing of recent years reflects solid performance.
Mount Airy’s proposed general fund budget for next year is $13,794,167, and its separate water-sewer fund budget, a self-supporting enterprise, is $6,194,412. Jones has said the general operating costs are proposed to be $101,343 less than the adjusted 2014-2015 budget for Mount Airy.
Earlier Thursday, during the public hearing, Chad Tidd — a local citizen who owns and operates Chick-fil-A — said that budget complexities faced by Mount Airy are earmarks of a progressive community.
“It’s part of growth,” Tidd said. “If we are not growing, we are in trouble.”
The local businessman applauded the direction the city’s finances are taking.
“As our community grows, things will be more complex and it’s a good thing,” Tidd commented. “Growth equals complexity.”
Allen Burton, another citizen, also praised the budget outlook for the city, saying it is adequately providing for public safety and amenities such as greenways and parks that are enjoyed by local residents as well as out-of-towners who don’t pay Mount Airy taxes.
Burton said he is satisfied with how the city is being run.
“As long as my benefits outweigh my expenses, that’s all I’m worried about,” he summed-up. “And right now that’s happening.”
John Pritchard, another citizen who spoke during the hearing, said he had hoped more residents would offer comments Thursday night about the budget, chalking that up to citizen apathy.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.