Public hearing on city budget set for Tuesday

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 3, 2013

SALISBURY — After raising the tax rate and increasing fees last year, City Council will take public feedback Tuesday on a proposed budget that does neither.
People may give their two cents on the budget at 4 p.m. in City Hall, 217 S. Main St. The 268-page document is available online at .
Without a proposed tax increase or fee hike, the 2013-2014 budget may not garner as much interest as in previous years. But the budget includes a variety of changes and proposals, including picking up the cost of a court employee, which would be unprecedented for the city, and a 2.25 percent pay raise for qualifying city employees.
The city has trimmed its ranks by nearly 50 employees since 2010, when 545 people worked for the city of Salisbury. The budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1, includes 496 employees.
The city cut 23 positions this year, City Manager Doug Paris said.
Rowan County took over 911 dispatch services for the city and the salaries of 11 employees, which will save the city at least $400,000 next year. Consolidating 911 services with Rowan is expected to save the city more than $5 million over 10 years.
Six vacant city positions were trimmed “through operating more efficiently,” Paris said.
Paris cut another six positions through management consolidations, including firing the Parks and Recreation Department director and program manager. Parks and Rec now answers to Assistant City Manager Zack Kyle, and the $240,000 in administrative savings will pay for air conditioning in Hall’s Gym.
“The idea is that the funds would be reoccurring and redeployed each year to support our frontline programming,” Paris said.
Paris said he saved about $130,000 after City Engineer Dan Mikkelson retired and Paris merged Mikkelson’s position with another job. Former Traffic Engineer Wendy Brindle is now the interim city engineer.
Mikkelson said Paris asked him to retire. Paris disagrees. The savings will go back to the general fund, Paris said.
Paris said he saved no money after Planning Director Joe Morris retired. No positions were eliminated or merged, Paris said, and Janet Gapen continues to serve as interim planning director.
In his budget message to City Council, Paris said the city is no longer using the original business plan for Fibrant, the city’s new high-speed broadband utility.
Fibrant, which the city launched in 2008 just as the economy crumbled, quickly fell behind projected subscriber and revenue numbers. Fibrant, which billed about 2,275 customers in March, was supposed to have 4,400 subscribers by 2014.
“This utility was conceived and implemented during a seismic economic shift in the national and world economy,” Paris said in his budget message. “Business plans that were conceived prior to this shift are no longer relevant for both private sector companies and government.”
Rather than aggressively adding customers, Paris said Fibrant’s new strategy has been finding the utility’s “sweet spot —growing our customer base conservatively while lowering our costs through operating more efficiently.”
New Fibrant General Manager Mike Jury and the city’s financial services team have cut $3 million in costs, Paris said.
Mayor Paul Woodson called the change a “big turnaround” when Paris presented the budget last week. Fibrant, which has been borrowing millions of dollars from the water-sewer capital reserve fund to cover operating costs, will not take out an internal loan next year, Paris said.
“Let me be clear. It is not time to celebrate,” he said. “We must continue our hard work in this area.”
The $3 million annual debt payment for Fibrant will fall next year to $1.7 million next year after the city refinanced to get a lower interest rate. The annual payment returns to about $3 million in 2015 and remains at that level until 2029, when Fibrant is paid off.
The city owes about $46.8 million in principal and interest on Fibrant debt, plus about $7 million in internal loans at 1 percent interest.