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No tax hike in Ahoskie

AHOSKIE – The budget was unanimously approved, with objection.

That contradiction in terms came in the form of a 5-0 vote here Tuesday where the Ahoskie Town Council approved the fiscal year 2008-09 budget, one that keeps intact the current tax rate of 77 cents (per $100 valuation). However, while he voted to approve the budget, Councilman Ronald Gatling did note afterwards that he opposed the new fee schedule.

Those fees, water and sewer rates, were increased as the town moves forward with its $15 million expansion to the wastewater treatment plant. Town Manager Tony Hammond said the hike was not only necessary to assist in paying for the expansion, but also for the hiring of one additional treatment plant operator and to set aside money to make annual payments on the $1.8 million the town borrowed for a Construction Loan and Grant Project. He further explained that the town needed to edge its water and sewer fees closer to the required rate ($53.70 per 6,000 gallons) in order to become eligible for multiple state and federal grants to help offset the cost of the expansion project.

The new budget, one totaling a shade under $6.37 million, is 2.5 percent higher than the current year budget. Separately, the $2.33 million Enterprise Fund budget reflects a 5.6 percent increase.

Hammond informed council members that expected increases in professional services, utilities, town employee benefits (health care and worker’s comp), insurance and escalating fuel costs accounted for the majority of the budget increases. He further explained that there was an additional increase for the purchase of a new police car and for the proposed ladder truck for the Ahoskie Fire Department. However, that fire truck will not be purchased unless a significant amount can be funded through a grant.

The tax rate will be applied to an estimated tax base of just over $181 million. That tax base is expected to generate nearly $1.4 million in revenue.

Councilman O.S. “Buck” Suiter inquired of the appropriations from fund balance ($383,355) and the Enterprise Fund ($694,045) used to balance the books for the 2008-09 budget.

“Over the last three fiscal years, there has been a need to balance the budget by appropriating from both the undesignated fund balance and the Enterprise Fund,” Hammond said. “But by the end of the year, sound management practices have resulted in no appropriations needed. With that same oversight, these appropriations for the new budget may not be needed as well.”

Hammond said the town’s undesignated fund balance (now at $1.8 million) remains strong and is above the state average.

The new budget proposes a three percent cost-of-living increase for the town’s 59 employees. It also includes merit raises (averaging three percent) for the employees based upon job performance over the past 12 months. Those increases are linked to a personnel study completed in late 2006 and the council’s commitment to keep the pay scale at current market levels.

Suiter motioned to approve the proposed budget with Councilman Malcolm Copeland offering a second. It passed unanimously, with Gatling’s objection to the fee schedule noted in the minutes.

The new budget takes effect July 1.