City OKs budget with employee raises, downtown funds, no tax hike

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 12, 2013

SALISBURY — City Council members said they could find little fault with the proposed 2013-2014 budget during a workshop Tuesday on Water Street.
The council unanimously passed the budget — which includes no tax hike or fee increases — after a few tweaks that gave Downtown Salisbury Inc. an additional $25,000 and earmarked $15,000 to help the Chestnut Hill neighborhood apply to be a National Register Historic District.
Councilman Brian Miller requested more money for DSI, which had asked the city for $165,000 but received $104,000 in the budget proposed by City Manager Doug Paris.
Miller, former chairman of the DSI board of directors, said the organization will lose $15,000 in tax revenue in the coming year because the Yadkin House Apartments is now a tax-exempt organization. Miller asked the city to replace the funding, as well as move $10,000 for a South Main Street corridor study from a city line item into the DSI allocation.
Councilwoman Karen Alexander asked the city to come up with $15,000 for Chestnut Hill and help the neighborhood create a historic district. That would cover the city’s 40 percent portion of the $35,000 application process if the city wins a federal grant, interim Planning Director Janet Gapen said.
Council members agreed with the increases, as well as $2,000 more for the Human Relations Council, and staff made the following cuts to come up with the difference:
• Defer capital improvement at tower site, $15,000
• Eliminate special project of strategic initiatives, $4,500
• Reduce operational expenses in public service traffic operations, $5,000
• Reduce operational expenses in facilities management, $75,000
City staff had made adjustments to the budget to prior to the workshop to reflect the loss of tax revenue from the Rowan County Airport. State lawmakers recently removed the airport from the city limits.
The city had counted on $80,000 in tax revenue and had planned to spend $68,000 on airport improvements, for a net loss of $12,000. Paris said staff found the money elsewhere in the budget.
The $36.2 million budget picks up the cost of six firefighters and, in an unprecedented expenditure that garnered little attention from City Council members, a court employee. The positions had been paid for by grants that expire at the end of this month.
The budget creates a second Police Interdiction Team in the street crimes unit and reinstates two downtown grant programs worth $42,000 that were cut last year to balance the current budget. Neighborhood groups that use city facilities for neighborhood-building events no longer have to pay a fee.
City employees who qualify will receive a 2.25 percent raise, and Fibrant, the city’s new high-speed broadband utility, will not borrow millions of dollars from other city funds for the first time.
“This is one of the most significant turnarounds,” Mayor Paul Woodson said.
He said many residents were convinced that Fibrant would bankrupt the city, and now the utility is self-sustaining. Assistant City Manager John Sofley said Fibrant has more than 2,400 customers and about 20 percent market share.
The budget includes a major equipment overhaul for Fibrant, which will sell off its four-year-old Zhone access gear and ONT boxes and buy new equipment from Calix, a competitor.
Fibrant General Manager Mike Jury has said he hopes to get 70 percent back on the city’s investment in the Zhone equipment, which he said has not been reliable. Zhone company representatives said Fibrant had more challenges than other networks they’ve worked with.
The city’s budget includes $788,000 for Calix equipment, which Woodson, Paris and Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell saw in action recently when they toured other high-speed broadband systems.
Woodson said networks using Calix only have outages that affect up to 15 percent of customers. Fibrant has had several outages that brought down the entire network.
The table at the budget workshop looked different with the absence of three long-time department heads. Planning Director Joe Morris retired. City Engineer Dan Mikkelson said he was asked to retire.
Parks and Recreation Director Gail Elder White was fired, along with her top employee, Program Manager Jeff Holshouser.
Woodson repeatedly asked for more parks and rec programming, saying the city wasn’t offering enough for children.
Paris outlined the creation of the new Infrastructure Services Department led by Fibrant chief Mike Jury, who now oversees facilities maintenance, traffic signs and signals and technology services, as well as Fibrant. Jury, who lives in Charlotte, has said he owns two companies in addition to his job with city and said he’s in Salisbury about three or four days a week.
Paris said Fibrant will save about $500,000 a year with the consolidation of several city services under one department. Staff will be crossed-trained to work on traffic signals, install Fibrant and do other technical tasks, eliminating duplicated services and offering a path for career advancement, he said.
Overall, council members said they were pleased with the budget. Councilwoman Karen Alexander said it reflected collaboration, innovation and efficiency.
Miller said city staff started on the budget earlier than usual.
“It’s evident to me this is something you’ve spent the entire year pulling together,” he said.
The budget reflected time, energy, visioning and discussion and “this is what we ought to be doing,” Miller said.
Pete Kennedy, the longest-serving councilman, said it was the first time in 20 years that he didn’t bring his knife to the workshop to make budget cuts.
“The city’s moving in the right direction,” he said. “This is something new for our city.”
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.