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City budget calls for boost to public safety agencies but no tax or fee increase

SALISBURY — In what he called the “public safety budget,” Salisbury City Manager Doug Paris presented to City Council on Wednesday his financial plan for the coming fiscal year.
In his proposal, Paris includes no tax rate hike or fee increases, no internal loan for Fibrant and a 2.25 percent raise for employees who qualify. The proposed general fund budget is $36.2 million, up only about $6,000 from the current year, with new employees and programs paid for by cutting costs, refinancing debt and moving money and positions from one area to another.
The proposed budget picks up the cost of six firefighters and, in what would be an unprecedented expenditure, a court employee. The positions had been paid for by grants that expire in June.
Paris calls for reinstating two downtown grant programs — cut last year to balance the current budget — and funding a South Main Street corridor study. He also suggests waiving the fee for neighborhood groups that use city facilities for neighborhood-building events. 
City Council took no action and will hold a public hearing on the budget at 4 p.m. June 4. Councilman Pete Kennedy, the longest serving member, called it the best budget he’s seen in 20 years.
After increasing the tax rate and garbage fees last year, as well as creating a new stormwater fee, Mayor Paul Woodson told Paris not to bring City Council any proposed tax or fee hikes for the 2013-2014 budget. The new fiscal year starts July 1.
Paris said his staff saved $3 million in the past 18 months by refinancing debt and cut nearly $1 million in costs from Fibrant, the city’s new high-speed broadband utility, as well as identifying an additional $1 million in savings as Fibrant service contracts come up for renewal.
The city’s water-sewer capital reserve fund has been loaning Fibrant millions of dollars to cover operations, but Paris said the broadband utility won’t need an internal loan next year. Fibrant is supposed to pay back the reserve fund at 1 percent interest. There is no deadline.
The city, which issued $33 million in bonds in 2008 to build the fiber-optic network, will continue to pay about $3 million a year in debt service on Fibrant. Remaining debt, including interest, is $47.1 million, according to the city.
Paris called on a trio of public safety officials — Fire Chief Bob Parnell, Police Chief Rory Collins and Rowan County District Attorney Brandy Cook — to pitch proposals for their agencies that Paris dubbed “strong investments in our community’s public safety.”
Parnell told City Council he plans to create a Fire Company Officers Academy to increase professional development with the department, as well as a new alignment that includes three new ranks.
The Fire Department was rocked by scandals in 2011 and again in 2012, each resulting in Parnell firing three employees and suspending one after allegations of sexual misconduct.
Parnell also introduced a $50,000 pilot program to offer incentives to property owners who install fire sprinklers in historic downtown buildings. The program comes after Grimes Mill burned to the ground in January.
Collins said he plans to create a second Police Interdiction Team, the popular street crimes unit he first introduced in 2011.
He also proposed creating several part-time civilian positions called police expeditors. These employees would handle the bulk of paperwork generated by patrol officers, allowing them to spend more time on patrol, Collins said. 
Making a rare appearance in front of City Council, Cook asked the city to pick up the cost of a domestic violence victim legal assistant. Cook won a grant last year to hire both the legal assistant and a new prosecutor, which allowed the creation of a special domestic violence court held on Mondays in the Rowan County Courthouse.
The state will continue to fund the prosecutor but not the legal assistant, who acts as a victim advocate.
Cook said after the meeting she also asked Rowan County for the $45,018 needed to fund the position for one year, but County Manager Gary Page did not include her request in his proposed budget.
Page told the Post that Rowan County, as policy, does not fund positions for any agency after federal or state grants expire. The county can’t afford it, he said.
Paris and Cook said they could not remember an instance where the city has funded a court employee.
Budget highlights include:

• A 2.25 percent raise, added to base salary, for each city employee who exceeded “satisfactory” during the last performance review. John Sofley, assistant city manager for finances, said he has budgeted $281,400 for raises. The city has 496 eligible employees.
The current budget gave qualifying employees the first salary adjustment in many years — a $1,000 increase.
• Picking up the cost of six firefighters would run $225,000, which Sofley said would come from general fund revenues.
The city won the 2011 federal grant to fund the six additional positions after it pledged to pick up the cost at the end of three years. The increase brought the Fire Department up to national standards, Paris said.
The new Fire Department alignment will enhance supervision and improve accountability, he said. The new alignment will include three new ranks: district captain, lieutenant and engineer III. 
“The new alignment reduces the span of control of a single shift battalion chief and will empower lieutenants, captains and district captains to address command and control duties,” Paris said in his budget message.
• Collins would take the street crimes unit from eight officers to 12, then split it in half to create two PIT teams. Each team would have a supervisor and five officers, he said.
The additional PIT team members and police expeditors would come at no extra cost, Collins said, but from moving existing staff and reallocating money from administration to operations, as well as savings realized by vacant positions.
Collins said his proposed budget — $6,918,847 — is slightly less than his current budget of $7,157,454. As proposed, Collins would have 81 sworn positions and seven full-time and five part-time civilian positions, for a total of 93.
• Paris said the city should fund Cook’s legal assistant because the position is a critical part of the prosecutorial team that focuses on cases involving adult and adolescent female victims of domestic abuse, sexual assault, teen dating violence and stalking. 
If the position is cut, Paris said, domestic violence victims will not receive individual attention and resources, and evidence may be lost due to the inability to contact victims, witnesses and law enforcement officers at an early stage of the criminal process. 
“It would also result in more court time for our police officers, taking them away from patrolling our community,” he said.
The $45,000 for salary and benefits would come from the general fund.
• Reinstating the Innes Street Grant Program and Downtown Grant Program would cost $42,000, which would come from the general fund. The $50,000 for the incentive program for fire sprinklers would come from the water-sewer fund.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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