City explores farming out operations

By Tom Joyce -

City Manager Barbara Jones, center, and Finance Director Pam Stone pore through budget documents as Commissioner Dean Brown watches.

One tidbit tucked away in a lengthy budget discussion by Mount Airy officials this week was a report regarding a recent feasibility study on contracting out some municipal operations.

And the result, City Manager Barbara Jones told the mayor and board of commissioners Wednesday during a budget update meeting, such a move wouldn’t save taxpayer dollars by eliminating personnel or otherwise alleviating a financial crunch faced by Mount Airy.

“It appears to me, based on our evaluation, that we can do it more cost-effective than contracting it out,” Jones said of a wide range of services examined.

This occurred due to the commissioners directing her during the winter to prepare a municipal budget for the approaching 2017-2018 fiscal year in July which caps spending at $12 million, compared to the present budget exceeding $14 million.

Jones and other staff members delved into various options aimed at cutting expenditures and/or raising revenues to head off a major property tax increase, dipping deeply into Mount Airy’s reserve funds or slashing municipal services to meet upcoming budget demands.

Garbage fee nixed

One change explored on the revenue-raising side was the possible addition of a $12 fee for residential garbage collection, to generate an estimated $612,000 annually for the city coffers.

A related hike was eyed for commercial cart collections, from $2.60 to $3 per pickup, which would have brought in about $16,000.

However, that idea was quickly kicked to the curb by city board members Wednesday.

“Charging for garbage (collection) is not what people expect when they move into the city,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley remarked.

The board’s Jon Cawley agreed, pointing out that trash pickup is one of the few services universally available to residents.

Farming out operations

“Another thing we’ve done is talk about contracting different services out,” the city manager said of that proposal aimed at reducing expenses.

Among the operations considered were tax collections (having that handled by the county government rather than a city staff), public works functions including utility maintenance, police telecommunications (turning dispatching operations over to the county 911 system) and medical services provided by the fire department.

But no potential savings were identified in shifting city operations either to other governmental units or commercial enterprises Mount Airy would be required to pay to provide those.

“How much difference?” Mayor David Rowe asked regarding the cost comparisons of services performed in-house as opposed to outside providers.

“Quite a bit, actually,” Jones responded.

“In every case it was quite a bit different,” she added, “and it was in every category.”

Even if shifting services were found to be financially feasible, any savings would not be realized right away.

“That would be something we would have to do next year,” Jones said of the lengthy process required for a changeover of functions such as tax collections.

Salary pressures

A key reason for the budget pressure facing city government is the commissioners’ desire to raise sworn officers’ pay in the Mount Airy Police Department to help offset ongoing vacancies, including a substantial increase for new hires from $29,000 to $35,000.

There also is support for hiking the pay for all 170 jobs on the city payroll to make it comparable to similarly sized cities — continuing a three-phase process toward a total 11 percent hike that began with a 3 percent raise this fiscal year.

Earlier discussions among the commissioners reflected a desire to consider police officers as a separate category for salary considerations due to the special dangers they face on the job.

But when presented with budget options Wednesday that would do that and still come close to meeting the $12 million directive, the commissioners opted not to make any decision.

One $12.2 million option would provide sworn police officers a raise while also requiring the layoff of nine city workers, no raises for any other personnel and eliminating special appropriations to outside agencies such as the Surry Arts Council, among other measures.

There is worry among some on the board about being able to sustain across-the-board raises on an annual basis once these are implemented, which led to talk Wednesday of a possible property tax hike this year.

Meanwhile, Jones says achieving the $12 million spending plan has proved to be a daunting task with city revenues totaling $11.5 million.

“I will tell you that this has been a very challenging task — this has been very hard in order to try to get to the $12 million directive,” the city manager said Wednesday.

City Manager Barbara Jones, center, and Finance Director Pam Stone pore through budget documents as Commissioner Dean Brown watches. Manager Barbara Jones, center, and Finance Director Pam Stone pore through budget documents as Commissioner Dean Brown watches.

By Tom Joyce

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

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

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