By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — The city’s tax rate and water-sewer fees are going up next year, but not by as much.
Salisbury City Council on Friday cut a proposed 5.4-cent increase to the property tax rate, passing a budget that raises the rate by 2.35 cents instead.
When the new fiscal year starts July 1, the tax rate will be 61.35 cents, up from 59 cents this year.
Council on Thursday rejected the revenue-neutral tax rate proposed by staff and asked for more cuts and cost deferments. Left turns at the Square, bridge repairs, unmarked police cars, new roofs and more were placed on hold for at least a year.
The budget process has stirred emotions, said Councilman Paul Woodson, who has served for 14 years.
“People are more passionate than I’ve ever seen,” Woodson said. “I’ve had lots of phone calls. The citizens are very in tune with what’s going on.”
City Manager David Treme said staff worked late into the night Thursday and early Friday morning to bring to Council $709,537 worth of savings to consider during day two of the budget workshop.
The elected officials were appreciative, congratulating staff for not only filling a $2.7 million budget hole but taking another crack at the fiscal plan and identifying additional savings.
“You’ve worked so long and so hard,” Mayor Susan Kluttz said. “This was a very difficult budget.”
Rather than a proposed 2.86 percent average increase for water-sewer fees, Council passed a 2.1 percent average increase. Salisbury-Rowan Utilities Director Jim Behmer said he could defer a new roof until next year.
After some debate, Council passed a $1 monthly fee for garbage collection service. Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy was the holdout but eventually voted yes.
Unlike higher garbage fees suggested Thursday, the $1 fee will not result in people paying more for garbage service than they save on their property taxes, Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said.
“Even the poorest residents would save money over last year,” she said.
Implementing the fee now could prevent the city from charging for garbage pickup next year, Blackwell said.
Homes and businesses that use rollout trash containers picked up by the city will see the $1 fee on their water bills.
What did Council cut or put off?
Left turns at the Square: Although council members gave high priority in February to changes that would allow left turns at the intersection of Main and Innes streets, they agreed to defer this project.
The complex undertaking would involve adjusting lanes of travel, underground work, street resurfacing and new traffic signals and ultimately could cost $350,000, said Joe Morris, the city’s director of planning.
While the city and Downtown Salisbury Inc. still can work together to plan the project, implementation will have to wait.
Fisher Street Bridge maintenance: Council deferred a large maintenance project for one year. The railroad recently approved emergency repairs to the bridge, which will allow the structure to stay open for another year without the maintenance, said Dan Mikkelson, the city’s director of engineering.
Railwalk sidewalk repairs: The city will pursue a grant to fix crumbling sidewalks in the Railwalk arts district. The grant could include more than just sidewalks, Morris said.
Cut Shober Bridge work: Since Council no longer can pursue rehabilitation of Shober Bridge due to railroad objections, the city doesn’t need money for an environmental document.
Eliminate proposed lease program: Salisbury Police had planned to lease unmarked cars for street crimes unit, Police Chief Rory Collins said.
Defer accreditation: Salisbury Fire Department is pursuing accreditation but can defer the process for a year without impacting homeowner insurance rates, Fire Chief Bob Parnell said.
Defer GIS strategic plan update: It’s been three years since the city updated the plan, but it will wait another year.
Cut mapping of street trees, traffic signs: The city had planned to map the signs for the wayfinding signs project.
Cut new street lights: No new lights will be installed.
Defer funding for Historic Preservation Master Plan: The city will wait a year to fund recommendations that come from the master plan process, which will conclude by August.
Defer funding for BlockWork: The Community Appearance Commission will have to wait a year for city to contribute to the new program. BlockWork won grants this year from the Robertson and Woodson foundations, so it’s possible the one-block cleanup in Brooklyn South Square could continue as planned in October.
Defer fire safety equipment: The Fire Department will put off until next year the replacement of six self-contained breathing apparatus and other equipment that would have outfitted a new fire truck. Six current airpacks, which are tested daily, are safe for firefighters to use for another year, Parnell said.
Defer electrical upgrades: Electrical work at the City Office Building can wait a year, said John Sofley, assistant city manager for finance.
Sofley said the city has several potential buyers for the Zimmerman Building. Once sold, employees will move to the City Office Building.
Defer roof replacements: Put off new roofs at the Park Avenue Community Center, Public Works building and Cemetery Division.
Defer HVAC monitors: Put off new remote HVAC monitors for the police and fire departments.
Utility savings: Staff identified cuts to utility costs.
Health-care savings: After the budget was printed, the city received slightly lower health insurance rates, Sofley said.
During the workshop, several council members questioned a new, more lenient late-fee policy for city utilities that has cut revenue for Salisbury-Rowan Utilities by $30,000 a month.
When the city launched Fibrant, the new broadband utility, Council switched to a 1.5 percent monthly late fee to match private companies like Time Warner Cable.
Salisbury-Rowan Utilities must use the same late fee, since the utilities are billed together, Sofley said.
If Salisbury-Rowan Utilities could go back to the original late fee schedule, it would have offset the water-sewer rate increase by 1 percent.
But Sofley said the city’s software doesn’t allow Fibrant and water-sewer to charge different late fees.
“John Sofley, don’t you tell me software can’t be changed,” joked Blackwell, who had a career in information-technology.
The more lenient fee benefits people who pay late, Councilman Brian Miller said.
“You’re providing an incentive for folks to pay us late,” Miller said.
Sofley said water customers are struggling in the poor economy. The new late fee helps people who are unemployed, Treme said.
“We felt like that was being sensitive,” he said.
Kluttz said the city is punishing people who pay on time by raising water-sewer rates to make up for the lost revenue in late fees.
Miller continued to question the policy but eventually gave up.
If landlord Tim D. Smith paid his $50,000 water bill — the city’s most delinquent account — it would be the equivalent of about a quarter of a percent on the rate increase.
Smith’s bill began accruing a year ago. The county is seizing rent from tenants at Smith’s mobile home parks for his unpaid property taxes and sharing some with the city for the water bill.
Council unanimously approved the budget, which Treme said was the best birthday present he could have received.
Treme, who unexpectedly announced this week that he will retire Aug. 1, turned 64 Friday.
July meeting day changed
Salisbury City Council has moved its regular July 5 meeting to July 7 to accommodate the Independence Day holiday. Council will meet at 4 p.m. in City Hall, 217 S. Main St. The meeting is open to the public.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.
By Emily Ford