Spencer’s proposed budget more than $2.5M

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Steve Huffman
Salisbury Post
SPENCER ó For about an hour and a half Wednesday evening, members of the Board of Aldermen discussed the town’s proposed budget during a workshop intended for that purpose.
It was pretty dry stuff ó discussion about dollars and cents, percentages, employee benefits and whatnot.
Pass the NoDoz, please.
Then, finally, aldermen got down to the nitty-gritty, kicking the affair into high gear when they began seriously looking for ways to slice dollars from a proposed budget that totals a hair more than $2.5 million.
Alderman Scott Benfield was the biggest proponent of further cuts, saying he wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than a 2-cent reduction in the town’s current tax rate of 60 cents per $100 valuation.
Specifically, Benfield questioned the budget for Police Department operations, which jumped from about $116,000 two years ago to almost $151,000 in last year’s budget.
That figure tops out at close to $152,000 this year.
Benfield wanted to know why, and Police Chief Robert Bennett explained that the budget item increased two years ago because it was necessary to pay for a patrol car that had been wrecked.
Why did it stay as high this year, Benfield continued?
Bennett began going over items line by line, explaining increases that included costs for computer repairs, hikes in uniform prices and much more.
Town Manager Larry Smith backed Bennett, but Benfield remained persistent, questioning if operation costs couldn’t be cut not only in the police department’s budget, but elsewhere.
“I’m not going to settle for anything less than a 2-cent tax decrease,” Benfield said.
He said voters elected him to save the town money.
“It’s nothing personal,” Benfield assured Bennett. “I’m not trying to insult anyone.”
Nothing was settled Wednesday, with a public hearing on the proposed budget scheduled for the board’s June 10 meeting. It starts at 7 p.m.
According to state law, the budget for the coming fiscal year must be approved by June 30.
The proposed budget that Smith presented included two options ó one that holds the tax rate at 60 cents and calls for pulling $26,415 from the town’s general fund to make up a shortfall.
The other option drops the tax rate to 58 cents, but calls for pulling $66,406 from the general fund.
But Benfield said he thought it’d be possible to drop the tax rate to 58 cents without having to pull any money from the general fund.
Ideas tossed about included closing the town library that officials said was used by only 2 percent of Spencer residents. They said the library, the centerpiece of Library Park, could be “mothballed” until the town gets money to renovate the facility.
“I’d rather have 90 percent (of the taxpayers) happy with lowering the tax rate than have 2 percent unhappy that we closed the library,” Benfield said.
Alderman Nick Bishop was the first to bring up the library, initially questioning if it would be possible to move it to a multi-purpose room in Town Hall.
He then upped the ante, asking: “Why do we even need a library? If we really want to save money, why drag it over here piecemeal?”
But Bishop also spoke against lowering the tax rate, noting that doing so will require a cut in any number of town services.
“There are those of us not interested in lowering the tax rate,” he said.
Another point of discussion when aldermen began looking for ways to cut from the budget concerned police officers being allowed to drive their patrol cars to their homes and back.
Chief Bennett said officers are allowed to drive to the county line or a maximum of 20 miles from the police department. He said a number of his officers take advantage of the offer, which Bennett referred to as a “benefit.”
Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Morris did some quick figuring and noted that making officers who commute the farthest drive their personal vehicles to and from work could save the town $17,000.
“That’s a penny on the tax rate,” Benfield kicked in.
But Bennett said taking away that option from his officers might create more problems than it solves. He noted that he struggles to keep his force staffed.
“I have trouble keeping employees,” Bennett said. “That money saved is going to have a ripple effect by the time we hire someone new (if officers leave as a result of being forced to drive their personal vehicles).”
Morris said there may be no other option. He said he’d rather cut that bonus for police officers than slice salaries or benefits for all employees.
“The take-home vehicles is a luxury I don’t think we can afford anymore,” Morris said.
Bishop said that if police officers aren’t allowed to drive their patrol cars home, no employee should be allowed to do so in any town vehicle. “I don’t care if they live across the street,” Bishop said.
The proposed budget is going to hit town employees especially hard when it comes to paying for health insurance. For the second consecutive year, employees will have to pay considerably more for health insurance for their families.
There will be a 17 percent spike in those costs under the proposed budget, with workers required to pay $233.93 every two weeks to insure their families. A year ago, the increase was 13 percent.
An employee paying for insurance only for himself and his spouse will pay $130.17 every two weeks while the cost for an employee and his children will be $88.64.
If an employee doesn’t have a family member on his or her insurance plan, the entire cost is covered by the town.
Smith said the town’s cost of paying for health insurance increased 20 percent this year. The town pays $207,055 per year for its employees’ medical insurance, $16,505 for dental insurance and $2,245 for life insurance.
If the proposed budget is approved, town workers will get a 3 percent pay hike and be eligible for merit raises ranging from 1 to 3 percent.
One of the biggest increases in the proposed budget is in the area of oil and fuel, with across-the-board hikes averaging 25 percent.
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222 or shuffman@salisburypost.com.