City Council asks for tax rate to remain the same
SALISBURY — When City Manager Lane Bailey presented the 2019-20 budget, he proposed a tax rate decrease to 71.27 cents per $100 property valuation. But at the City Council’s budget workshop Tuesday, the council asked to keep the tax rate at 71.96 cents per $100 to fund several projects.
Keeping taxes at the current rate would bring in revenue to spend $208,000 on the Salisbury STEM Cohort in city schools and also provide money for either the Rowan IDEA Center or for debt service for parks and recreation upgrades.
“I don’t see the reason to drop our tax rate when we’ve heard you say for a whole year how challenging this year is going to be,” Councilwoman Tamara Sheffield told Bailey. “The impact to the citizen is cents, and the impact on funds and stuff that we know are growing, i.e. maintenance — I don’t see where that $200,000 could assist versus helping me getting 50 cents or $50 off of my taxes.”
Council members emphasized the importance of investing.
“We have to do something to make our city better, whether it’s schools, downtown or whatever, so that property values can go up,” Mayor Pro Tem David Post said.
Councilman Brian Miller said choosing not to invest could lead to the decline of the city.
“We can say we’re not going to invest in parks and rec,” Miller said. “We’re not going to invest in our school system. We’re not going to do downtown incentives, and we’re not going to do this and we’re not going to do. What you end up doing is a downward spiral. We’ve got to invest in ourselves at some left. If we don’t, the general market won’t invest in us either.”
A good chunk of the nearly four-hour budget meeting was focused on funding for the Parks and Recreation Department. Sheffield voiced her frustrations with the lack of discussion about the rest of the budget, which she had marked with sticky notes on areas where she had questions.
“Parks and rec has been a huge topic,” Sheffield said. “I do find it amusing, although while it’s important, I’ve heard three hours of public comment, an hour presentation at a council meeting and over an hour discussion today, but we’re going to spend 40 minutes on this whole budget. Once I get past being befuddled by all that …”
In the discussion for Parks and Recreation’s priority project, the council narrowed it down to City Lake improvements, restrooms at Kelsey Scott Park and City Park, pool plastering, the floor at Hall Gym, City Park tennis court resurfacing and a six-court pickleball facility at the Civic Center. The projects are estimated to cost $775,000.
The department is getting an additional $350,000 for dredging of City Lake to lower sediment levels.
Parks and Recreation Director Nick Aceves said the tennis court resurfacing could be funding partially through a U.S. Tennis Association grant.
The condition of the tennis courts and the lack of sufficient pickleball courts has been a highlight of the public-comment period at the last several City Council meetings. Tennis players have voiced disappointment about the lack of resurfacing of the courts at City Park while pickleball courts were being installed. The pickleball courts were being funded through a $25,000 donation.
Mayor Al Heggins asked how the donation would affect the budget and if it could pay for the pickleball facility.
Post, who was one of the donors, said the $25,000 is no longer in play.
Post questioned the need for resurfacing tennis courts that aren’t being used.
Heggins said residents have been saying the courts are being used.
“I’m a citizen playing tennis,” Post responded.
“And a council member,” Heggins added.
The council heard a presentation by Candice Austin, principal at Overton Elementary School, and two teachers about the first year of the Salisbury STEM Cohort. They asked that funding be continued for the upcoming year. They asked for $75,000 for a teacher stipend and $20,000 for STEM professional development and materials.
The program is at Isenberg Elementary, Koontz Elementary, Overton Elementary, Knox Middle and Salisbury High schools.
Charles Hardin, a fourth-grade teacher at Overton, said STEM education changes traditional thinking and allows for out-of-the-box problem solving that students will need when they leave high school.
Miller asked how the program has affected teachers.
Austin said she has seen an increase in confidence, especially since STEM can often seem intimidating. She added the cohort has increased communications among the Salisbury schools.
Miller also asked if the program is helping them do a better job to educate students. Austin said it is.
Miller suggested to Bailey that the council discuss the cohort to gain an understanding of its achievements and needs throughout the year.
Austin also proposed funding for a pre-kindergarten class at Overton Elementary or Isenberg Elementary. She estimated there is a maximum of 200 pre-kindergarten-age children in the city that don’t go to pre-k. To implement one pre-k classroom for 18 students, they asked for $100,000.
The council agreed that it would support some funding for pre-k but said it would like to see a contribution from the county and private donors as well. Miller also wanted more clarity about how many students are in need of pre-k.
“The cake needs to bake more,” Miller said.
Austin said she understands that it would take time and she wanted to make the council members aware of the program.
“We’re going to make a major shift,” Austin said.
The council will receive a final budget at its Tuesday meeting that will include a funding strategy for the parks and recreation projects and a better understanding of how the IDEA Center allocation would be used for.