Goal-setting council moves beyond ‘gloom and doom’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 17, 2013

SALISBURY — Teresa Harris’ “State of the City” financial message at this year’s Salisbury City Council retreat was a lot different.
There were no forecasts of tax and fee increases, no talk of declining revenues and shortfalls. Instead, Harris spoke of cost savings, adding to the fund balance and the restoration of local grants cut in years past.
When Harris, the city’s financial services manager, said she could promise taxes and charges would stay the same as council starts looking at the 2013-14 budget this spring, she heard applause.
“For 14 years,” Mayor Paul Woodson said, “it’s been kind of doom and gloom.”
Harris said the city books are “stabilizing financially, but we’re not there yet.”
One goal council has set is doubling the city’s available fund balance to 30 percent,
Over history, Assistant City Manager for Finance John Sofley said, the city’s fund balance levels have been kept low because local revenues were steady and there were few disruptions from the state in either shared revenues or changes in the city’s ability to generate funds.
But that changed with a deep recession and a slow economic recovery marked by a decline in housing values, historically high unemployment and the state’s willingness to change laws and affect local government’s future revenues and expenses, Sofley said.
“Our tax base actually went down slightly,” he said.
At council’s direction, the city financial staff has worked at identifying costs savings, while pumping up the city’s fund balance, which increased 53 percent in 2012.
In the past, under more stable economic conditions, Salisbury tried to keep an available fund balance as a percent of expenditures at 10 percent.
Sofley said compared to other municipalities of its size and in this region, Salisbury lagged way behind in its available fund balance.
He showed council charts comparing Salisbury to these other cities and towns since 2006.
The averages among Kannapolis, Concord, Lexington and Statesville ranged from 40 to 50 percent during those years, while Salisbury was at 10 percent or just above that mark.
Salisbury’s available fund balance in 2012 rose to 15 percent.
“We recommend a new goal of 30 percent,” Sofley told council. “… It will take many years.”
City Manager Doug Paris said the city would aim to meet that 30 percent goal through cost management, not revenue increases. A strong available fund balance would allow for a greater continuity of services if a future recession hits, city staff said.
The city would less likely have to resort to laying people off and cutting back services, Paris noted.
Woodson said many other cities in North Carolina still have lower tax rates and higher available fund balances. “We have to figure out what they’re doing,” he said.
Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said she would like to see annualized goals for increases in the fund balance. “It has to be measured,” she said, adding that the statement “It will take many years” to reach 30 percent available fund balance was not a clear goal at all.
Over the two-day retreat, council touched on a wide range of topics, including the new development process, marketing efforts by RowanWorks, downtown projects, tourism, video sweepstakes, possible smoking bans in public parks, Project SAFE, council meeting times, creation of a citizens academy and an introduction to its new Youth Council.
Friday’s guest, Dr. James Johnson Jr., professor of entrepreneurship and strategy, had a morning session with council before his luncheon talk on demographics.
With council, his topic was “Creating Healthy and Sustainable Communities in an Era of Economic Uncertainty.”
But one of the main messages he left was council was how important first impressions are, especially on the city’s website.
“You have to be in the business of promoting your community,” he said.
Company site selection consultants first look at communities on the web, Johnson said, “and if they don’t like (what they see), you’re not in the game.”
The most competitive cities update their websites on a daily basis, he said, adding the city must become voracious about “competitive intelligence gathering.”
Use information as power and have a sense of competitiveness with web-based economic development marketing, Johnson advised.
Johnson advised council to do some forecast planning and decide where the city should be in 2018, then work back from that goal.
Council came up with more immediate goals before going home Friday from its meeting place at the Rowan Museum.
Some of the goals include:

• Develop and implement a comprehensive marketing plan.
• Support and funding for BlockWork, a one-day extreme makeover for sections of neighborhoods.
“I think it’s too good of a program to let it languish,” Blackwell said.
• Reinstate the Municipal Service District and Innes Street facade grants.
• Develop a small area plan for the South Main Street corridor that includes the Empire Hotel and possible future sites for the school system’s central office and Integro.
• Create a citizen academy, which will give participants a behind-the-scenes look at city operations.
• Implement small business entrepreneur programs.
• Have a new customer acquisition program for Salisbury-Rowan Utilities.
• Support the Police Athletic League.
• Work with the county on a community asset inventory and “visioning.”
• Improve Fibrant’s system infrastructure “to achieve 99.999 percent reliability.”
Councilman Brian Miller said the city has to do better communicating with its technology service providers. “I want to see that community as close to us as possible,” he said. He also pushed to have a council liaison with Fibrant, like there are liaisons to boards and commissions.
Woodson said many residents tell him as soon as the city can guarantee Fibrant is highly reliable, they’ll switch their providers.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.