Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
Salisbury City Council liked what it saw Thursday morning and quickly adopted a tax-neutral budget for 2007-2008.
The city’s new property tax rate will be 59 cents per $100 valuation ó down from 62.5 cents per $100.
This year’s countywide property revaluation made the decrease possible, but essentially the city’s tax-neutral posture is saying residents will be paying about the same.
A property tax rate of 59 cents per $100 valuation means the owner of a $150,000 home will be paying $885 a year in city property taxes. That amount doesn’t include the homeowner’s county property tax.
Council also approved a 2.92 percent increase in water-sewer rates, effective July 1.
The average residential water-sewer bill will increase from $60.61 to $62.38.
Some of the budget highlights:
– An average 3 percent merit increase in pay for city employees.
– The city absorbs a 4.4 percent increase in the cost of group health insurance.
– A pay increase for City Council.
– The hiring of three new fire control specialists, to address overtime issues in the Fire Department.
– The hiring of two new police officers to work directly on youth violence and gang-related activity.
– The hiring of an assistant to the city manager to help with strategic planning, accreditation efforts in various departments, policy research and establishment of a council legislative agenda.
– The hiring of an engineering technician who, along with a $26,000 allocation, could help the city add roughly 300 new street lights a year.
– The replacement of City Park tennis courts for $225,000.
Council voted 5-0 for the budget Thursday morning.
With a general fund of $34,308,112, a water-sewer fund of $19,486,760, a transit fund of $1,762,085, a general fund capital reserve fund of $2,001,076, a water and sewer capital reserve fund of $491,395, Community Development Block Grant funds of $402,526 and housing rehabilitation and down payment assistance funds, the city’s operations come close to $58.6 million.
Thursday’s meeting represented the council’s third budget work session, and several council members made it clear earlier that they could not live with a tax increase.
City Manager David Treme had proposed what he considered a tax increase of a cent per $100 valuation (to 60 cents per $100 valuation) to fund a “safety and crime prevention program” that included the two new police officers, the street lights and engineering technician and increased code and nuisance abatement efforts.
Council members wanted to keep that safety and crime prevention emphasis and suggested that Treme and his financial staff were being too conservative with the increased revenue estimates related to property valuation.
Treme had estimated a 6.13 percent increase in taxable valuation from the new assessment, based on figures supplied by the assessor’s office.
Treme met with department heads last Friday to identify one-time capital expenditures that could be appropriated from the city’s fund balance. They would be expended, he explained Thursday, only if sufficient revenues came in during the budget year.
The management team identified eight projects, totaling $256,912 (or about a penny on the tax rate), and came to a consensus of their funding order, if the revenues materialize.
If the revenues come up short, the projects will be delayed.
Here is the list in priority order:
– Purchase equipment for the Fire Department, $45,000.
– Reroof part of the Civic Center, $26,000.
– Purchase salt/sand equipment for the Street Department, $20,000.
– Bridge design and right-of-way purchase for the Ellis Street Bridge, $69,000.
– Replace office furniture for the Police Department, $15,000.
– Additional storage cabinets for the Planning Department, $6,200.
– Reupholstering City Council chairs, $4,000.
– The city’s share of purchasing two new transit buses, $71,712.
Treme said there’s a high probability again in 2007-2008 that the Ellis Street Bridge’s final design and right-of-way purchase won’t happen.
The actual disbursement for two new buses also could be delayed until next summer, so that they wold not have to be paid for until the next fiscal year, according to Treme.
Having these eight items attached to the budget’s fund balance allows the city’s tax rate to remain neutral, Treme said. Again, he emphasized that the projects would not be paid for out of the fund balance but only as (and if) other revenues become available.
Management Services Director John Sofley said the city will have a better handle on revenues in October when it knows what the county has billed tax-wise.
“That’s about as clear as we can get until June 30 of next year,” Treme added.
Council took less than 20 minutes to approve the budget with Treme’s new proposal. Council members congratulated Treme and the staff on their work.
At no time during the budget process did council discuss the proposed increase in its own salaries.
Treme recommended increases for the mayor, mayor pro tem and council positions to bring Salisbury more in line with other municipalities. Treme said he made the recommendation on his own, not at the veteran council’s urging.
The salary for the mayor’s position will increase from $11,676 a year to $13,500; mayor pro tem, from $9,082 to $11,500; and councilmen, from $7,784 to $10,200.
The raises become effective Jan. 1, 2008.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or