Holding the line – again

Published 4:03 pm Saturday, June 14, 2014

AHOSKIE – Sometimes good news comes loudly and at other times it’s a whisper.

That was the reasonable analogy Tuesday as the Ahoskie Town Council approved the town’s 2014-15 proposed budget, ordinance and fee schedule.

The new budget takes effect on July 1.

“The budget reflects $7.010 million in General Fund expenditures, which is a 10.08% reduction from the current fiscal year’s budget, and $3.486 million in Enterprise Fund expenditures, a .08% reduction over the current fiscal year’s budget,” Town Manager Tony Hammond told council.

Hammond said that even with the increase in professional services, utilities, employee benefits, auto & property insurance, and even gasoline; coupled with payments on the city’s Police and Fire stations, and staff increases, the proposed budget was “viable and tight”.

The Town Manager then recommended that the current tax rate (76 cents per $100 of property value) remain the same, even after the construction of the new Fire Station on MLK Drive and South Street.

“The tax rate would be applied to a new estimated tax base of $301.78 million, including Residential, Corporate, and Property taxes which will at the present collection rate general some $2.29 million in tax revenue,” Hammond stated.

Other revenue avenues include $825,000 in local sales tax; $584,736 in garbage fees; $271,000 collected from utility franchise fees; $200,000 in privilege license fees; $160,000 in motor vehicle taxes; and $100,000 in planning, zoning, and building fees.

Hammond pointed out that the new level of tax base did reflect an increase in some growth of new homes and new businesses in the town but did not reflect the town’s newer development over the past six months or expected growth over the next 12 months.  For the town, one cent of tax rate now yields $30,178.

After six years of balancing the budget by appropriating from both the Unappropriated Fund Balance and Enterprise Funds at the end of the year; nothing will need to be appropriated from the fund balance or from transfers to the general fund.

Usually this needed be done to offset Water and Sewer expenditures, but this year those expenditures were reduced from $500,000 to $300,000.  This year it’s recommended that the rates be adjusted per the proposed fee schedule.

The Town Manager pointed out that despite a decrease in revenues over the past two years an increase in sales tax for HertfordCounty offset that loss of revenue.

“Overall, General Fund revenue is driven by the increases in residential, corporate, and property taxes, building fees, franchise fees, additional revenues, interest and a modest amount of growth in the property tax base,” he stated.

Hammond said while there were some nearly 90 full and part- time employees to meet the town’s service and program demands, this will mark the second year when there will remain six vacancies in the Police and Recreation departments.  The six positions have been added to the budget for 2014-15.

However, the budget does not reflect a cost of living increase for town employees, but does reflect a merit raise of up to 2.5 percent.

Some expenses, like employee benefit costs, continue to rise each year. Ahoskie also appears to have held the line on certain increases such as Health Care and Workman’s Comp premiums that only increased by six percent for the town compared to 18 percent or higher in other municipalities.

On the expenditures side of the budget (from General Fund and Enterprise Fund), the top departments receiving taxpayer/user fee money include: Wastewater Treatment: $3.485 million; Police: $2.3 million; Water/Sewer: $1.52 million; Fire: $1.25 million; Cultural & Recreational: $790,756; Administration: $609,952; Public Works: $427,937; Streets – $386,104.

During the public hearing on the budget, one citizen, former council candidate Donald Kirkland asked about the status of the unfilled six positions within the Ahoskie Police Department.

Ahoskie Police Chief Troy Fitzhugh replied there has been one new graduate from Basic Law Enforcement Training and others that have applied for the vacancies, though he did not say how many there were.  Meanwhile, Hammond said there was more good news on potential Police Department hiring.

“I will tell you this, that the last couple of years some of his (Fitzhugh’s) positions have been frozen simply because of the way the budget numbers were,” Hammond said. “This year they are not frozen and if they are out there, he will find them.”

After the public hearing was closed, Mayor Brien Lassiter called for Council comments and Councilwoman Elaine Myers inquired about the town’s employees enrolled in the Blue Cross-Blue Shield Wellness Program.

Hammond said the program (which is not mandated) will begin this year and he hopes the potential medical insurance deduction increase for non-participants will be incentive to sign up and participate. The assessment could also have a significant impact on medical cost reductions in future years, based on employee participation.

With no further comment, Councilman Rev. C. David Stackhouse made a motion to approve the proposed budget, ordinance and fee schedule; seconded by Councilwoman Linda Blackburn.

The budget passed unanimously.