Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Steve Huffman
Salisbury Post
SPENCER ó By a split vote, the Board of Aldermen on Tuesday approved the town’s budget for the coming fiscal year.
The budget, which totals almost $2.5 million and includes a 2-cent tax hike, was approved only after Mayor Alicia Bean broke a 3-to-3 stalemate among board members.
The mayor only votes in the event of a tie. The new budget ups the town’s property tax rate from 58 cents per $100 valuation to 60 cents.
The owner of a $100,000 house will pay $600 in taxes.
The tax increase also comes on the heels of a countywide property revaluation. Spencer’s revenue neutral tax rate ó that which would have held taxes basically the same as they were prior to the revaluation ó was just under 54 cents per $100 valuation.
Still, the majority of board members defended the increase.
“I think 60 cents is a good compromise,” Bean said, noting that to balance the town’s budget, a tax increase to 63.5 cents would have been needed.
As it is, the plan is to dip into the town’s fund balance to the tune of $51,000 in the coming year. Board members said that had the tax rate been held at 58 cents, about $91,000 from the fund balance would have been needed.
As of late May, Spencer’s fund balance was roughly $811,000.
The motion to approve the budget was made by Alderman Nick Bishop and seconded by Michael Smith. C.E. Spear cast the third vote in favor of the budget that was presented by Town Manager Larry Smith.
Board members Randy Gettys, Sam Morgan and Ken Womble opposed the budget.
No one from the public spoke either in favor of or in opposition to the budget during a hearing on the matter held prior to the presentation.
But all board members expressed opinions of the budget before voting on it.
Gettys started the discussion by thanking Smith for his efforts in preparing the budget, but noted, “I’ve got to respectfully disagree. I just wanted to get that off my chest.”
Gettys said his opposition “boils down to economic development.” He said he’d prefer the town concentrate on necessities, then build its wish list as funds allow.
The budget approved Tuesday includes the purchase of a new fire engine that will cost about $425,000. The plan is to finance the truck for 10 years at $54,144 a year.
Womble agreed with Gettys, saying only, “I don’t believe in raising taxes. I want everyone to know where I stand.”
Morgan said maintaining the 58-cent tax rate was the “prudent thing to do.” He encouraged town leaders to “look at the budget once more. Maybe we can pare down a few more things.”
Morgan noted the town’s depressed economy and its large number of senior citizens as reasons for maintaining the tax rate. “Until business picks up, I can see raising (the tax rate),” he said.
Other board members disagreed.
Smith said he didn’t like raising taxes, but said there comes a time when doing so is a necessity. He noted that even with a 60-cent tax rate, the town will be dipping into the fund balance.
Besides, Smith said, fuel and health costs are rising to unprecedented highs. Under the new budget, employees will pay an additional 13.2 percent in the cost of health insurance.
Smith also noted that the new fire engine was a “huge need.” Town leaders have warned that Spencer’s insurance rating could slip and the cost of fire insurance for homeowners rise without that new truck.
“There’s some major costs this town is facing,” Smith said.
Bishop said much the same. He noted that Spencer maintains some of the best police protection and garbage collection services of any town, and said dipping excessively into the fund balance was a risky undertaking.
“That’s our savings for a rainy day,” he said. “I think 2 cents is something we can accept and justify.”
Spear, the board’s elder statesman, noted, “We agree to disagree all the time. That’s how we get things done.”
He continued, “It’s a difficult time for everybody. We want to please everybody and it can’t be done.”
Bean said the town’s tax rate had held steady since the 2002-2003 fiscal year. “It’s almost amazing we’ve been able to keep it at 58 cents for five years,” she said.
Highlights from the budget approved Tuesday include:
– The budget for the governing body is $44,668, a decrease of $1,627.
– The administration budget is $365,052, an increase of $13,909. That includes funding for the accounts payable computer replacement and access to the police department’s parking lot from Seventh Street.
– The budget for the police department is $833,260, an increase of $43,238. That includes a new patrol car, adapting into the county OSSI software and matching money for grant applications.
– The budget for the fire department is $293,339, an increase of $93,275. That includes the new fire engine and an increase in funding for part-time staffing.
– The budget for the streets department is $419,223, an increase of $31,347. That includes money for a new three-quarter ton service truck.
– The budget for the solid waste department is $316,024, a decrease of $33,206. During the past year, that department’s budget was increased for a chipper and chipper truck replacement.
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222 or