Editorial: Focus on growth best after city manager’s warning

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 6, 2020

The Salisbury City Council would do well to heed warnings from City Manager Lane Bailey that he’s discouraged about the 2021 fiscal year’s budget.

It’s not unusual for city and county managers to say things like “this budget will be a difficult one,” as Bailey did during the council’s planning retreat last week. It’s no easy task to corral tens of millions of dollars in requests, likely more than current revenues can handle, and turn that into a balanced budget.

But Bailey said he was discouraged because the city will also need to increase its pension payment and increase pay for the Public Services Department, where it’s been hard to fill positions. The city’s 2021 fiscal year budget surely will also feature new requests and ones that were not funded in previous years. Salisbury Police Chief Jerry Stokes in recent weeks has also publicly complained that areas of his budget were cut.

The city is in the process of taking on tens of millions of dollars in new debt to pay for  upgrades to Salisbury-Rowan Utilities infrastructure, which are not optional but must be considered during the council’s budgeting process. That’s in addition to existing debt on its fiber-optic network formerly known as Fibrant that the city must pay until the end of the decade we’ve just entered.

Increased personnel expenses, other necessary new expenses and debt mean the city council may be limited in its ability to pursue ambitious, new or unplanned projects without raising taxes or spending its fund balance, which partially acts as a savings account.

There will be many months of staff work before the budget is presented to council members. When it is, we hope they will work within what the current tax rate and fee structure provides rather than looking for ways to heighten the burden on taxpayers. In the meantime, the council can make progress on improving its tax base, which is always the best way to grow revenue. That means encouraging and incentivizing  new construction and businesses. It already has a head start in overhauling its land development ordinance to make it more user-friendly.