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M’boro experiencing financial difficulty

MURFREESBORO – Officials here in this historic Hertford County town are using whatever measures are necessary in an effort not to see red ink at the bottom of their current year (2014-15) operating budget.

To date, that effort has included slashing the budget by nearly $500,000 – which included losing two town workers and placing a freeze on current vacant positions.

There’s even talk among town residents of a pending tax hike effective with the new budget, one set to begin July 1.

Rumors of a tax hike was addressed by two town citizens when a standing room-only crowd attended last week’s regularly scheduled meeting of the Murfreesboro Town Council,

“I understand the financial dilemma the town is in, and I understand that some drastic things have to be done to correct it. I wouldn’t presume to tell you what you need to do, but I implore you to do this: don’t raise the tax rate,” stressed town resident Brinson Paul.

“The people in Murfreesboro pay enough already,” Paul continued. “I pay more here than I did when I once lived in a Detroit (Michigan) suburb. I’ve talked to some (town citizens) that pay more here than they did while living in Virginia Beach. Fix the budget, stick to it and don’t raise taxes.”

“For a town of this size, the tax rate is already too high,” noted Joel Bennett, another Murfreesboro citizen. “I feel our high taxes keep people from moving to Murfreesboro. If I were to suggest raising anything, it would be the sales tax. It’s fair because everybody pays their share when they buy something. But don’t raise the property tax.”

Following public comment, Mayor John Hinton read from a prepared statement regarding the speculation surrounding the property tax issue and the recent events regarding the North Carolina Watermelon Festival, an annual event held in Murfreesboro.

“First, not everyone seated at this dais supports a property tax increase,” Hinton said. “Some prefer to control spending before considering a tax increase. I believe that is the way to proceed, but I’m willing to consider arguments from my peers. More revenue, in my opinion, should only come when we have developed a strong fiscal policy.”

In regards to the Watermelon Festival, Hinton stressed that the town did not terminate the event; rather, the Festival committee made that decision (one they rescinded on Wednesday of this week after necessary funding was contributed from different sources).

“The town simply desired reimbursement (from the Festival committee) for police salaries and overtime during the four-day period just as discussed for the past several years,” Hinton stated. “As acting administrator under authority described in the Murfreesboro Charter, I stated that I would sign the festival permit only when a satisfactory financial solution was reached.

“Why…..most of you seated here tonight didn’t know the town was on its knees last June facing a financial meltdown,” the Mayor continued. “There’s little wonder for you being unaware since our Council sessions have not had media coverage for the past two years and fewer than one percent of our population attend these meetings, only to complain or make a personal request for favors.”

Hinton went on to say that during the summer of 2014, the town endured a Local Government Commission inquiry regarding Murfreesboro’s ability to meet its financial obligations, and a reduction in budget expenditures of between $450,000 and $500,000. He said the latter resulted in the employment termination of two town workers; two vacancies frozen within the Police Department; not filling the vacant Town Administrator’s position; closing the town garage; eliminating the third shift on the town’s E-911 call center; and contacting vendors in an effort to reduce duplicated services that had been a financial burden to town citizens over the past several years.

“But most important, there have been no raises for our municipal employees; they are now approaching two years without a salary adjustment,” Hinton stressed.

Despite these financial difficulties, Hinton said the town, in August 2014, spent $11,365.09 for police salaries and overtime…apparently referencing the timetable of the Watermelon Festival. He added that expenditure did not include FICA expense, liability insurance for the officers, or fuel costs.

“We accepted these expenses with total disregard to the fact that no municipal employee received a raise,” Hinton acknowledged. “My conscious has plagued me for the past eight months. Therefore, my decision to withhold approval of the (Watermelon Festival) permit until a financial solution could be reached is dictated by feelings of my failure to see the real need of our employees last summer.”

Hinton closed by stating that Murfreesboro needs to adopt the Montgomery theory of municipal government…“Show me the money; can we do it for less; and how does it affect the taxpayer,” Hinton said. “We’ve come a long way and this Council has given up too much to change course now. We have some tough decisions to make with our upcoming (2015-16) budget.”

Later in the meeting, local auditor Don Johnson laid out the news regarding Murfreesboro’s financial dilemma. His presentation was for the first nine months of the current 2014-15 fiscal year (through March 31). With three months remaining (April 1 – June 30), Murfreesboro only has $429,783 worth of revenue remaining in its General Fund, which began the year (July 1, 2014) operating with a $1,936,172.42 budget. Johnson pointed out that the amount remaining is 22.20 percent of the total budget….meaning in a perfect spending environment, 25 percent of the budget is dispersed each quarter of a fiscal year. The 22.20 percent figure is less, meaning Murfreesboro officials must make cuts or transfer funding from departments with more than 25 percent left in their respective final quarter budgets to those with less than 25 percent.

Later, in a pair of budget amendments approved unanimously by Council members, those transfers were made in an effort to keep the town operating in the black for the remainder of the current fiscal year.

“We’ve got to get hold of our finances,” Hinton later told the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald. “The one thing I have trouble making our department heads understand is that just because there is x number of dollars in their departmental budget, that doesn’t mean they have to spend every dime of it.”

However, Hinton admitted that Murfreesboro’s current financial dilemma didn’t happen overnight.

“This problem has been growing for years, and our fund balance has taken a powerful hit. We need to get hold of our fiscal management and not consider raising taxes,” the Mayor concluded.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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