Landis passes controversial budget

Published 12:10 am Friday, June 17, 2016

By Rebecca Rider

LANDIS —  The Landis Board of Aldermen voted 3-2 to pass a budget Thursday that would strip the town of eight public safety positions, despite opposition from town residents.

The balanced budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year is $11.5 million, and would call for two full-time police and six part-time firefighter positions to be cut. The approved budget took an $800,000 fall in expenses from the current budget, which rings in at over $12 million.

The personnel cuts came after town residents complained of high electricity bills. Reducing police and fire budgets will result in a 5 percent decrease in electric rates. But at Thursday evening’s public hearing, many residents said that while they want lower electric rates, they don’t want it at the cost of public safety.

The personnel cuts would leave Landis with eight full-time police officers, two school resource officers and six full-time firemen.

Resident Francis Helms pointed out that, with a $2 increase in garbage fees and a 2.3 percent increase in water and sewer rates – which are also on next year’s budget – the people of Landis are really only saving about $5 a month. Landis has a low crime rate, and she wasn’t sure the trade off was worth it.

“You can still, you know, walk your dog at night, go for a jog in the morning. I feel safe here. … For a five dollar a month savings, I’m not willing to give that up,” she said.

Other residents said the fire department was already understaffed, and questioned what hours police and firemen would be required to work to see that the town was covered and how response time would be affected.

“What ya’ll doing is messing with the lives of the citizens of this town, and that’s something you don’t want to do,” David Sells said.

Many speakers referenced the recent shootings at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Others were worried that, with a reduced police force, crime would creep in.

“Without public safety, this town’s gonna drop,” Roger Safrit said.

But others spoke up in favor of the cuts, citing high spending on the part of the board and some of the departments.

“I think that we do need to start cutting. The budget for the police department is outrageous,” Joy Drye said.

The police budget for the current fiscal year tops out at more than $1 million. Other speakers thanked the board for cutting what they could from electric rates, and for trying to get town spending under control.

When it came to board comments, Mayor Mike Mahaley and Alderman Dorland Abernathy said that they directed town officials to cut a particular dollar amount from police and fire budgets – not to cut staff, specifically. Mahaley said he didn’t “micro-manage” departments, and if police and fire could figure out a way to keep the positions without going over budget, that was fine with him.

But Town Manager Reed Linn said in an interview prior to the meeting that personnel was the only place cuts could be made.

Aldermen Dennis Brown and Seth Moore spoke out against the budget. Moore said he agreed that there was a spending problem, but did not think this was the solution. Cutting public safety was not the right decision – Landis may not have a nightclub, he said, but it had schools and churches.

“At your own home you may feel safe, but schools are definitely a target,” he said.

Brown agreed.

“I think in the end it’s going to be a bad thing. I think it will end up costing us more than you or I will ever know,” he said.

But Mahaley said that something had to be done.

“We are spending more money than we are actually taking in, and we are doing it on the back of every electric customer we have,” he said.

Passing the budget would “be a start.”

Alderman Tommy Garver made a motion to accept the budget as proposed, and Abernathy seconded. The vote was a tie, with Abernathy and Garver voting for the budget, and Brown and Moore voting against. Mahaley broke the tie, siding with Abernathy and Garver. The budget passed.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.