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City Council firm on not increasing property tax, but many fees will rise

By Mark Wineka
Salisbury Post
The city of Salisbury will hire two additional people and create a new code enforcement division to help address rundown housing and downtown property maintenance issues.
Salisbury City Council added some $240,000 in expenses ó including the code enforcement needs ó to its proposed 2008-2009 budget Thursday.
But in the end, the council asked City Manager David Treme to avoid a property tax increase and cover those items by taking money from the city’s fund balance.
A penny on the city’s tax rate of 59 cents per $100 valuation generates about $280,000 in revenue.
Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy said with the current economic downturn, in which even the federal government is giving money back to citizens, Salisbury should not have a tax increase.
Treme expects to bring a final budget proposal to the council Tuesday, based on the decisions made at Thursday’s second and last budget workshop.
While the city property tax will remain at 59 cents per $100 valuation, Salisbury residents and businesses will be paying more for some other things:
– Salisbury-Rowan Utilities will be increasing the average monthly residential water-sewer bill by 5.7 percent.
– The monthly residential landfill fees will rise to $3.93, up from $2.96. For commercial properties, the monthly landfill fee increases to $7.32, up from $5.53.
– The monthly residential recycling fee will be $3.19, up from $2.81.
– The commercial pickup fee will be $10 per container, up from $8.
– The front-end collection fee will be $74.11 a month per container, up from $58.11.
City cemetery fees also will increase, though city officials say they still will be 20 percent below the local market average.
To avoid increasing city bus fares, the budget will transfer $66,620 from the general fund (supported by property tax revenues) to the transit fund.
Salisbury will have a total 2008-2009 budget of about $63.9 million, including a water-sewer utility of $22.275 million.
Increased contractual fees and rising fuel surcharges led to an increase in solid waste collection charges, but Management Services Director John Sofley said residents and businesses could see fluctuations up or down through the next 12 months, based on costs.
Treme said the whole fuel cost question remains a big variable for Salisbury and other cities.
The fuel cost projections he used six to eight weeks ago to formulate his budget proposal already are “out of kilter,” Treme said. He budgeted $614,609 for fuel expenses then but, based on today’s prices, the amount should be $718,560, meaning next year’s proposed budget faces a $103,951 shortfall already.
Treme had figured his original budget on the current gas price, plus 10 percent. Salisbury-Rowan Utilities is facing a $25,000 shortfall in its fuel budget at current prices; the transit division, $17,400.
“I don’t know where the top end of this thing is going,” Treme said. “… There’s no comfort I’ve received about the price.”
Sofley said at some point he probably will have to return to the council and seek approval to designate more fund balance to cover the price of fuel.
Going into Thursday, the council already knew it needed the extra $66,620 from the general fund to avoid having to raise bus fares.
They then spent much of Thursday morning discussing Treme’s plan to restructure code enforcement duties ó which are currently divided among four different city departments ó and place them under one division contained within the Land Management and Development Department.
With that restructuring, Treme recommended hiring a code manager at $72,114 and a code specialist at $48,541 with capital costs (a vehicle and two laptop computers) of $25,176. The costs cited for the code manager and specialist are all inclusive and not representing salary only.
The existing code enforcement approach in the city has a full-time nuisance abatement officer under public services, a half-time minimum housing inspector under the Fire Department, a half-time zoning enforcement officer under Land Management and Development and a Salisbury Police officer who devotes about 20 percent of his or her time.
Hiring the code manager and a code specialist cross-trained in nuisance abatement, minimum housing and zoning enforcement would essentially double the current staff. The whole division could be located at the Park Avenue Community Center.
Long term, it would be the division’s goal to have all employees cross-trained and divided to cover certain city sectors, much like community policing. A code manager also could be a liaison with a future housing commission.
Councilman Bill Burgin said he hears complaints that the city needs another minimum housing inspector now, and he expressed concern that Treme’s plan was adding personnel without getting more people on the street.
Treme said the new roles will be working code positions who do inspections while providing leadership and better coordination. The city receives complaints now for not doing enough in code enforcement, Treme said.
But he predicted the restructuring and future adoption of a Better Housing Code and Commercial Property Maintenance Code will lead to complaints about the city doing too much in code enforcement.
Over the past two years, Mayor Pro Tem Paul Woodson said, he has observed a notable increase in complaints from renters who are moving into substandard housing. Neighborhood leaders also have registered their concerns with city officials about the effect rundown housing has in relation to crime, safety and property values.
Downtown representatives have asked the city to consider the Commercial Property Maintenance Code.
On other budget items, Burgin asked that Treme include $5,000 for the N.C. Transportation Museum, $2,500 for a Fire Department defibrillator and $11,000 for a Fire Department thermal imaging camera.
Councilman Mark Lewis asked that the city’s allocation to Downtown Salisbury Inc. be increased from $90,000 to $98,500. He also pushed for the Community Appearance Commission’s request for $5,000 toward downtown benches and trash receptacles and $1,600 for neighborhood signs.
Mayor Susan Kluttz said she wanted at least $5,000 designated toward gang prevention efforts, in addition to what might be available in the council’s $15,000 discretionary fund.
She also pushed for $5,000 to provide for additional street trees, because of the lingering effects of last summer’s drought. To go with that, she requested $2,500 worth of “gator bags,” the devices hung to newly planted trees for watering purposes.
Kennedy and Kluttz said the council also should consider the Salisbury-Rowan Human Relations Council’s request for a full-time director at a total cost of $70,000, half of which would be the city’s responsibility, and an aide, the city’s share of which would be $20,000.
But council members came to a consensus that it needed to know whether Rowan County is interested in picking up half the costs. “The city needs to stay actively involved in it,’ Kluttz emphasized.
Former Human Resources Director Melissa Taylor, now working in Winston-Salem, had also been handling duties for the Human Relations Council.Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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