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Garbage fee of $3 doesn’t fly; budget session leaves tax rate unchanged

By Mark Wineka
mwineka@salisburypost.com
Salisbury City Council has trashed the idea of a $3-a-month garbage collection fee.
City Manager David Treme recommended the garbage fee as part of the city’s 2009-10 budget and offered to reduce the property tax rate by a penny in exchange for it.
But speakers at a public hearing Tuesday had strong feelings against the fee.
So did council members Thursday during a budget work session as they ditched the fee and approved a budget that keeps the city tax rate at 59 cents per $100 valuation.
The budget work session also delivered good news for community organizations and programs that annually rely on an allocation from Salisbury city government.
Treme’s original budget recommendation called for a 7.5 percent across-the-board reduction in funding to the “special community efforts groups.”
Council instructed Treme to keep the funding at this year’s levels and also bump up money for the city’s continuing gang prevention efforts by an additional $12,000.
City employees will not receive an extra floating holiday as recommended in the budget proposal.
The residential water-sewer rate will increase by 4.54 percent, meaning the average residential bill will increase from $65.93 to $68.94 a month.
Council dispatched quickly with the budget questions they had Thursday and adjourned their work session in just over an hour.
Treme had suggested the garbage collection fee as a first step toward making it a self-sustaining operation not dependent on property taxes.
Mayor Pro Tem Paul Woodson said he conducted an unscientific tally at his dry-cleaning business and found 22 citizens against the charge and three for it.
“It seemed like people were adamant against it,” Woodson said.
Woodson said a lot of people he talked to actually figured out the difference between what savings they would see with a property tax decrease vs. what they would pay with the garbage collection fee.
Councilman Mark Lewis said he understood Treme’s thought process in recommending the garbage collection charge. But it could be argued, Lewis said, that the fee was regressive, having a bigger impact on lower-income citizens.
Councilman Bill Burgin said he heard no support for the collection fee, which would have shown up on residents’ water-sewer bills.
Burgin and Mayor Susan Kluttz said citizens were not making any connection between the collection charge and a decrease in the property tax. Basically, council members said, people expect that their property taxes go to pay for garbage collection.
Kluttz said she appreciated that Treme gave the council an option to consider. She honestly thought citizens might like the idea, given their property tax rate would go down, Kluttz said.
Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy said he would rather have the same tax rate than see the additional garbage fee.
As for funding various community groups, Lewis calculated that going back to the current funding levels and shelving the 7.5 percent decrease would only mean that Treme would have to find roughly $32,739 more in the budget.
Others agreed with his suggestion, and Kluttz pushed for the increase in gang prevention funding. She said police think they are making inroads with the problem, but some supplemental Project SAFE money that has been used in the past has been turned down.
Burgin initially suggested that the city’s allocation to the Salisbury-Rowan Economic Development Commission and Downtown Salisbury Inc. stay at its current level and not be cut. The recommended decrease for Downtown Salisbury Inc. probably would cost a job, he said.
Kennedy said jobs also would be lost at Rufty-Holmes Senior Center, if the city cut its allocation from $58,000 to the recommended $53,650.
After council decided to keep funding for the groups where it is, Burgin warned that finding the extra money may not be problematic now, but it could be next year.
“That’s when you’re going to catch it,” he predicted.
With the budget approved Thursday, city funding for the Human Relations Council will stay at $3,500; facade grants, $22,000; the EDC, $69,498; Downtown Salisbury Inc., $98,500; Rowan Museum, $6,000; Rowan Arts Council, $45,000; Rufty-Holmes Senior Center, $58,000; and Horizons Unlimited, $42,342.
The proposed budget recommended adding an 11th holiday ó a floating holiday ó for city employees. A recent market study suggested the extra paid holiday. City employees have 10 holidays compared to 12 for county employees, Treme said.
But council thought adding an extra holiday for city employees during the current recession sent the wrong message.
“This year is not a good time,” Woodson said.
At his own business, Woodson added, he has had to cut two holidays.
Burgin said his architectural firm has nine holidays a year. In trying to keep everyone employed with the city, which was a charge council gave to Treme at its February retreat, Salisbury probably should stay with the paid holidays it already offers, Burgin said.
“Appearance is everything in our business,” Kennedy agreed, “… the political business.”
Lewis said he was neutral about the holiday after Treme explained it was more a loss day of productivity than it was a strain on the budget.
Kluttz said it wasn’t the year to add a holiday, however. “The good news is, we’re not letting anyone go,” she said.
Woodson noted that in future years, maybe adding the extra holiday could be considered again.
Lewis praised the city staff for doing “a remarkable job” with the proposed budget in keeping everyone employed and maintaining a level of city services.
On the 4.54 percent increase in water-sewer rates, council members generally agreed it probably was necessary to keep up with state and federal requirements, the reduction in water use and the increase in the costs of chemicals and electricity.
“I feel like it’s a fair, responsible request,” Treme said, adding that Salisbury’s rates are competitive with other municipalities. (See the accompanying chart.)
The good news is, Treme added, that the city has the water treatment capacity it needs and has found ways to delay construction of a new sewage treatment plant for now.
Overall, Treme said the budget is depending on grant funding, yet to be approved, for Police Department positions, greenway construction and transit improvements.
“I have them in here,” he said, “because I feel pretty good about them.”
One concern for Treme is what state government, feeling its own money crunch, might require of municipalities.
“I don’t know what they’re going to do that’s going to impact us,” Treme said.
Treme said he made a concerted effort with this year’s budget not to rely on the city’s fund balance, especially with what next year might bring.
“I’m expecting the best, but I want to be prepared for the worst,” he said.
The approved budget includes a general fund of $34.3 million; a water-sewer fund of $22 million; transit fund, $1 million; capital reserve fund, $2.4 million; water-sewer capital fund, $727,941; fiber-optic network fund, $1.3 million; Community Development Block Grant funds, $378,695; and a Rental Rehab Fund, $116,229.

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