City Council keeps same tax rate for 2020 fiscal year, water, trash bills to increase

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 19, 2019

SALISBURY — The City Council on Tuesday approved a budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year that would keep the property tax rate at 71.96 cents per $100 while raising water and trash bills. 

The budget increases the Salisbury-Rowan Utilities rate by 1.6 percent for all customers and solid waste collection by $2 per month for residents. The average household would see an $1.12 increase per month in its water and sewer bill.

The budget, which takes effect July 1, totals more than $83.3 million, which awards funds for the Bell Tower Green downtown park, Dixonville Cemetery, City Park Lake dredging and other projects.

At last week’s budget workshop, the council agreed to forgo City Manager Lane Bailey’s recommendation for a tax decrease to be able to fund projects in a difficult budget year. Much of the conversation was focused on capital projects for the Parks and Recreation Department.

Council member Tamara Sheffield voiced frustrations about the lack of discussions on the budget as a whole at the workshop. She questioned the proposed rate increase for utilities, saying the council can’t say the city is not increasing taxes when it increases water and sewer bills for all residents. That’s unlike the property tax rate, which directly affects only property owners.

“We have to have these questions when we’re raising, lowering or moving things around, because how many people are going to sit and read up? They’re not,” Sheffield said. “That’s our jobs to do that for everyone else.”

Bailey explained the SRU rate increase is there to account for inflation.

Mayor Al Heggins asked about the risk if the rate remained the same.

“If you’re asking if that would be devastating to SRU funds to not increase the water rate, it would not,” Bailey said. “But if we did that a couple years in a row, we’re setting ourselves up for problems.”

SRU Director Jim Behmer said the utility has found deficiencies in the system after the wet season and wants to keep up with infrastructure concerns.

“We are purposefully putting money into our infrastructure, which we have to do,” Behmer said. “Some other folks are playing catch-up or waiting for their revenue to come in. We want to keep up. We don’t want to have to pay for this.”

Council member Karen Alexander said she understands that any rate increase is hard, but she does not want to be like other communities that are so far behind in water and sewer infrastructure that the system fails and the state has to come in to take over.

After discussion, Sheffield said she was satisfied with the rate increasing and added that the council members need to ask questions because they represents 34,000 residents.

The council considered three versions of the budget. The first allotted $75,000 for the Rowan IDEA Center. The other versions did not provide money for the business incubator, instead adding to the general fund contingency expenses or reducing the general fund balance appropriation. All versions included $95,000 for the Rowan-Salisbury Schools STEM Cohort.

The City Council discussed whether it should fund the IDEA Center despite its state of flux, as Mayor Pro Tem David Post put it.

Council member Brian Miller said he would like to continue the good relationship Salisbury has with Rowan County. Post suggested they should continue the conversation with the IDEA Center to see what the money would be used for.

In the end, the council decided to remain with the first version but relabeled the $75,000 for the IDEA Center for economic development.

Miller said, compared to previous years, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of angst about Bailey’s recommendations.

Money for Parks and Recreation Department capital improvement projects were absent from the approved budget. Those projects would include sidewalks and boardwalks for City Lake, tennis court resurfacing and a new pickleball facility.

The council will return to the capital projects after LandDesign completes its master plan and the city is reimbursed about $800,000 for a street project. The capital projects are expected to cost $775,000. Bailey said, as the city waits for the reimbursement expected to come this summer, the department can search for grants, especially challenge grants that have the cities promise a portion of funding.