By Mark Wineka
Salisbury City Council generally gave a thumbs-up Monday to key elements of a 2007-2008 budget calling for more police officers, more street lights and expanded nuisance abatement.
But council still has decisions to make on funding for community groups, other personnel and a final property tax rate.
Council discussed a proposed $58.7 million budget for the first time Monday and will resume its work at noon today at City Hall.
City Manager David Treme has presented a budget that, figuring in the recent Rowan County revaluation of real property, would amount to a 1-cent-per-$100 valuation tax increase.
Finance officers for the city say that with growth and revaluation factored in, a tax neutral rate for city residents would be 59 cents per $100 valuation.
A 59-cent rate actually would represent a decrease from the current property tax rate of 62.5 cents per $100 valuation, but many property owners also have seen an increase in their property valuation.
Treme has proposed a tax rate of 60 cents per $100 valuation the reason he considers his proposal a penny increase on the rate. The city budget proposal also calls for a 2.92 percent average increase in residential water and sewer rates.
Council members had no dispute Monday with the proposed utility rate increase, which would increase an average residential customers bill from $60.61 to $62.38.
The water-sewer rate increase would be effective July 1.
I wish I could make it zero, but I really couldnt do it, Treme said of the utility rate hike.
Looking for major water users to help revenues, Treme has been talking with city managers in Concord and Kannapolis about a future sale of up to 5 million gallons of water a day to those cities, which are still immersed in efforts to have interbasin water transfers approved.
Thats one of my top priorities, Treme said of future negotiations with the cities to the south.
A penny on Salisburys tax rate generates $260,388.
Accordingly, Treme has recommended that an extra $260,388 go toward the hiring of two police officers to concentrate on gangs and youth violence; the installation of roughly 300 new street lights a year and the hiring of an engineering technician for designing the lighting plans; and increased funding for nuisance abatement.
Salisbury Police Chief Mark Wilhelm said his department has basically been depending on one officer to concentrate on gangs, and it has proved to be too big of a task.
He described the need for a three-pronged approach that includes prevention, intervention and prosecution.
I absolutely support the two youve requested, Mayor Susan Kluttz said, noting the stepped-up efforts the city has been making to address youth violence.
Treme and council members noted that the Police Department actually will be adding three other officers, bringing the total of additional officers to five, if recent annexations arent legally challenged and become effective June 30.
Councilman William Pete Kennedy said citizens usually agree to paying more in taxes if its going toward improved police protection and safety.
The budget seeks $38,959 for the street lighting engineers position and $26,000 for the installation of more lights. Kennedy and Mayor Pro Tem Paul Woodson said street lights are really part of crime prevention.
Treme agreed it would be part and parcel of a safety effort to light up the town.
When council members look at a budget and consider what a city should be providing, Kluttz added, adequate street lighting should be one of those things.
Dan Mikkelson, director of land management and development, gave a recent history behind some of the citys efforts at street lighting. He said 2003 was the last year Salisbury had a regular program in place.
That year, the city allocated $15,000 toward new lights and had an engineer on staff who could plan their installation. But in the middle of that budget year, the state cut important municipal funding, and the city had to do away with the program.
There was no funding for new street lights in the 2004 and 2005 fiscal years, and the city even stopped accepting petitions for lights. In fiscal year 2006, the city appropriated $7,500, enough funding for about 80 lights.
The existing city staff was able to process 29 lights, but five petitions for about 50 other total lights were put on hold or backlogged.
In the past fiscal year, $4,550 set aside for new lights on Brenner Avenue also has been backlogged, Mikkelson said. Besides Brenner Avenue, the five areas of the city still waiting for lights for which they have petitioned, include Rolling Hills (19), Stonybrook (18), Henderlite Street (2), Secret Garden (2) and Crosby Street (9).
Annexations since 2003 have added 462 street lights at a total annual cost to the city of $42,900. (Street lights also have been going in new subdivisions as theyve been built.)
Mikkelson said the city has 3,587 existing street lights, representing an annual cost to the city of $344,870.
It would take six years to bring the entire city up to the lighting standards it should have, Mikkelson said.
That would mean upgrades of $18,240 to change 709 mercury vapor lights to high pressure sodium lights; the installation of 1,123 new high pressure sodium lights at a cost of $104,040; and the hiring of the engineering technician at $39,000.
If that occurred, the city would have 4,710 lights at an annual cost of $506,150.
Mikkelson gave council members examples of certain areas of town, such as Eagles Heights, Gold Hill Drive, the Salisbury Mall and Jake Alexander Boulevard, and the lighting needs in those sections.
Fire Chief Bob Parnell said city staff recently has formed a Better Housing Committee to get a better handle on deteriorating housing issues.
The committee brings together representatives from nuisance abatement in Public Services, minimum housing in the Fire Department and code enforcement in the police and planning departments.
Before he requested additional personnel for nuisance abatement and code enforcement, Treme said, he wanted to know more and have a long-range plan.
We have deteriorating housing, he said. What can we do to turn the tide?
Parnell said the committee might be able to identify ways to catch homes before they reach a more serious stage.
This is a great first step for us to get better housing in the city, Public Services Director Tony Cinquemani said of the committee.
Public Services currently has only one nuisance abatement officer handling 1,600 to 1,700 complaints a year. Of those, about 10 to 15 percent end up having to be abated by the city, Cinquemani said.
Council members generally agreed to the hiring of three new fire control specialists for the Fire Department. Treme said it will be cheaper than the cost of paying overtime to 18 fire captains.
The departments overtime budget increased by about $130,000 this year because the Fair Labor Standards Act changed the captains classification status for overtime from exempt to non-exempt.
Treme said an additional firefighter per shift will reduce the overtime and increase the staffing score needed for a good insurance rating.
Council has yet to make a final decision on whether Treme should have an assistant.
After giving their input on several organizations and the needs they face, council members also have asked Treme to return with a proposal on how to spread an additional $25,000 among many nonprofit community groups.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Mark Wineka