Goal-setting council looks past ‘gloom and doom’ financial days

  • Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2013 12:02 a.m.

SALISBURY — Teresa Harris’ “State of the City” financial message at this year’s Salisbury City Council retreat was a lot different.

Salisbury parks could become tobacco-free

Other news and notes from Salisbury City Council’s two-day retreat, which ended Friday:

• Salisbury City Parks probably will go tobacco-free. Look for a recommendation to come from the Salisbury Parks and Recreation Department this spring. The city department will have assistance in the initiative from the Rowan County Health Department and the N.C. Community Transformation Project.

Many cities in the state already have adopted tobacco-free policies in their parks out of health, litter and second-hand smoke concerns.

“This is a no-brainer to me,” Councilman Brian Miller said.

• The city will investigate the possibility of providing crosswalks in the Brooklyn South Square-Civic Center area of the city. One problem for pedestrians in this area is getting across the multi-laned South Long Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

Acting on recommendations from the Housing Advocacy Commission, the city will be looking to adopt a tenant-landlord handbook and update Chapter 10 of the city code, allowing officers to act more promptly on unsafe conditions.

• Eight people have been identified and asked to serve on a newly created Committee on Nuisance Animals. The appointments could come as early as March.

• The West End Transformation Plan is about 18 months into a two-year process, planners say. Something will soon be available for public review.

• Building renovations are scheduled this spring at the Lincoln Park Pool. A gazebo has yet to be completed or funded.

• In its study of possibly allowing left turns at the Square, the city is waiting for the N.C. Department of Transportation to authorize Salisbury’s hiring of a consultant to study the issue.

• The next downtown streetscape improvement plan could take in the 400 block of North Lee Street.

• Phase I of four phases of improvements to the city’s website has been completed. “We need to improve that — use it as a marketing tool,” Councilman Pete Kennedy said.

• RowanWorks Executive Director Robert VanGeons told council there is a $271 million retail sales gap in Rowan County — sales not being served here but fulfilled elsewhere.

• Council learned of a 60/60 rule describing the people who play video sweepstakes. Sixty percent are female, and most people are over 60.

• Project SAFE Neighborhoods is now in its 10th year in Salisbury. The federal program tries to help local communities reduce violent crimes by putting offenders in federal prison if they continue their activities after receiving fair warning — the face-to-face community “notification” meetings.

• Over 10 years, 177 violent offenders were “notified” and given a chance to turn their lives around with the help of community resources. Of the 177 notified, 69 percent have not committed felony crimes or assaults.

• Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said she thought the caliber of this year’s retreat was amazing.

For Karen Alexander, newly appointed to the council, it was her first retreat.

“I am just blown away by the amount of work you all do,” she told city staff members. She congratulated those who lined up all the presenters. She found the retreat “impressive and enlightening” and said she wished more of the public would attend.

— Mark Wineka

There were no forecasts of tax and fee increases, no talk of declining revenues and shortfalls. Instead, Harris spoke of cost savings, adding to the fund balance and the restoration of local grants cut in years past.

When Harris, the city’s financial services manager, said she could promise taxes and charges would stay the same as council starts looking at the 2013-14 budget this spring, she heard applause.

“For 14 years,” Mayor Paul Woodson said, “it’s been kind of doom and gloom.”

Harris said the city books are “stabilizing financially, but we’re not there yet.”

One goal council has set is doubling the city’s available fund balance to 30 percent,

Over history, Assistant City Manager for Finance John Sofley said, the city’s fund balance levels have been kept low because local revenues were steady and there were few disruptions from the state in either shared revenues or changes in the city’s ability to generate funds.

But that changed with a deep recession and a slow economic recovery marked by a decline in housing values, historically high unemployment and the state’s willingness to change laws and affect local government’s future revenues and expenses, Sofley said.

“Our tax base actually went down slightly,” he said.

At council’s direction, the city financial staff has worked at identifying costs savings, while pumping up the city’s fund balance, which increased 53 percent in 2012.

In the past, under more stable economic conditions, Salisbury tried to keep an available fund balance as a percent of expenditures at 10 percent.

Sofley said compared to other municipalities of its size and in this region, Salisbury lagged way behind in its available fund balance.

He showed council charts comparing Salisbury to these other cities and towns since 2006.

The averages among Kannapolis, Concord, Lexington and Statesville ranged from 40 to 50 percent during those years, while Salisbury was at 10 percent or just above that mark.

Salisbury’s available fund balance in 2012 rose to 15 percent.

“We recommend a new goal of 30 percent,” Sofley told council. “... It will take many years.”

City Manager Doug Paris said the city would aim to meet that 30 percent goal through cost management, not revenue increases. A strong available fund balance would allow for a greater continuity of services if a future recession hits, city staff said.

The city would less likely have to resort to laying people off and cutting back services, Paris noted.

Woodson said many other cities in North Carolina still have lower tax rates and higher available fund balances. “We have to figure out what they’re doing,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said she would like to see annualized goals for increases in the fund balance. “It has to be measured,” she said, adding that the statement “It will take many years” to reach 30 percent available fund balance was not a clear goal at all.

Over the two-day retreat, council touched on a wide range of topics, including the new development process, marketing efforts by RowanWorks, downtown projects, tourism, video sweepstakes, possible smoking bans in public parks, Project SAFE, council meeting times, creation of a citizens academy and an introduction to its new Youth Council.

Friday’s guest, Dr. James Johnson Jr., professor of entrepreneurship and strategy, had a morning session with council before his luncheon talk on demographics.

With council, his topic was “Creating Healthy and Sustainable Communities in an Era of Economic Uncertainty.”

But one of the main messages he left was council was how important first impressions are, especially on the city’s website.

“You have to be in the business of promoting your community,” he said.

Company site selection consultants first look at communities on the web, Johnson said, “and if they don’t like (what they see), you’re not in the game.”

The most competitive cities update their websites on a daily basis, he said, adding the city must become voracious about “competitive intelligence gathering.”

Use information as power and have a sense of competitiveness with web-based economic development marketing, Johnson advised.

Johnson advised council to do some forecast planning and decide where the city should be in 2018, then work back from that goal.

Council came up with more immediate goals before going home Friday from its meeting place at the Rowan Museum.

Some of the goals include:

• Develop and implement a comprehensive marketing plan.

• Support and funding for BlockWork, a one-day extreme makeover for sections of neighborhoods.

“I think it’s too good of a program to let it languish,” Blackwell said.

• Reinstate the Municipal Service District and Innes Street facade grants.

• Develop a small area plan for the South Main Street corridor that includes the Empire Hotel and possible future sites for the school system’s central office and Integro.

• Create a citizen academy, which will give participants a behind-the-scenes look at city operations.

• Implement small business entrepreneur programs.

• Have a new customer acquisition program for Salisbury-Rowan Utilities.

• Support the Police Athletic League.

• Work with the county on a community asset inventory and “visioning.”

• Improve Fibrant’s system infrastructure “to achieve 99.999 percent reliability.”

Councilman Brian Miller said the city has to do better communicating with its technology service providers. “I want to see that community as close to us as possible,” he said. He also pushed to have a council liaison with Fibrant, like there are liaisons to boards and commissions.

Woodson said many residents tell him as soon as the city can guarantee Fibrant is highly reliable, they’ll switch their providers.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.

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