City board right to avoid using surplus

Mount Airy city commissioners are wrestling with some tough budget questions this year, and they should be commended for doing so.

It is all too common for an elected body to push hard decisions down the road, especially when their bank account is relatively fat, as Mount Airy’s is, with what amounts to a $12 million general fund surplus — nearly a year’s worth of money.

However, when City Manager Barbara Jones presented a budget this year that she projects would eat away nearly a quarter of that surplus — meaning the city would be operating at what amounts to a $3 million deficit for regular, daily operating expenses — the commissioners have stood up and said no, that’s bad policy.

The board members have even said they would entertain a tax increase over dipping so deeply into the general fund surplus.

They are absolutely correct in their sentiments — running such a huge deficit would be a disaster, depleting the city’s reserve fund in just a few years, if those projected figures are correct.

As we’ve said in this space before, we don’t trust those figures. Several times over the past few years the city manager’s budget projections have shown a significant reliance on money from that year-end fund surplus to balance spending, yet most of those years the year-end surplus has remained steady or even grown.

In the present fiscal year the city budget projected needing $2.2 million of that fund balance to pay its normal operating expense for the year, yet as of Monday, with just 17 days left in the fiscal year, Jones admitted the city’s only used about $230,000 of that fund balance — about $2 million less than projected.

Which means, at the June 30 conclusion of the fiscal year, the city will once again have just about as much in the year-end fund balance as it started the year with on July 1, 2015.

We respect these commissioners for being willing to do what is in the long-term best interest of the city, even if it’s unpopular and, in the short term, painful. That’s leadership over politics, as it should be.

We also agree with them that the year-end fund balance should not be used to meet normal operating expenses — some should remain in place for emergencies, while a portion of the money might be wisely used for needed capital improvements (which could, in turn, save on repair and expensive maintenance costs).

However, we’re simply not convinced a tax increase is necessary, given the recent history of inaccurate budget projections offered by city staff.

We support the commissioners’ recent directive to Jones to slice $750,000 in expenses from her budget proposal. We also believe the tax rates in Mount Airy should remain the same, at least until it’s proven the general fund budget truly does need additional revenue to meet regular operating expenses.

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