Budget season is here again, and there are also several other city news items worth noting from this past month.
City manager’s budget recommendations: The city manager released his recommended "trial balanced budget" on Monday. As usual, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the draft budget contains neither major service cuts nor new service fees. I had been particularly concerned over the prospect for a new residential trash pickup fee (or "garbage tax" as I called it). Since it would have applied to all households at the same charge (regardless of income or amount of trash produced), I opposed it as a regressive tax (one which falls disproportionately heavily on lower-income families). That fee was not included in the "trial" budget, and I will oppose any efforts to insert it.
The bad news is that the manager’s proposed budget contains a 4.5 cent property tax rate increase. I don’t expect that to go over well, and I am looking for ways to avoid or reduce it.
In looking at the budget, it’s worth taking a minute to look at exactly what is producing the problem. I think it’s unfortunate that media attention continues to focus on possible service cuts when we have not been increasing city services or their costs in any significant degree. Instead, other factors are at work. In sum, the manager’s proposed operating budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is about $143 million, up about $4.5 million from the current fiscal year. Of that increase, almost half ($2.1 million) comes from increased employee benefit expenses, mostly for increasing health insurance costs ($1.2 million). That’s a problem hitting all employers hard, as health insurance costs nationwide continue to spiral out of control. Another $1.8 million of the increase is attributable to routine staff merit pay increases of up to 2 per cent. Finally, almost a million ($865 thousand) is required as a result of slower than expected staff turnover. People are not leaving for private sector jobs that are harder to find in this nationwide stagnant economy. The same poor economy has produced an estimated $1.3 million slump in local sales tax revenues to the city, and hurt other city fund balances at the same time.
So what do we do about that combination of problems? That’s the $4.5 million question. I’m looking at options and always welcome your suggestions. One convenient chance to comment will come in the public meeting on Thursday, April 15, beginning at 7 p.m. at Miller Park Recreation Center.
Let me add one caveat to that invitation: Please hold the debate about backyard vs. curbside trash pickup! That question is not expected to be revisited during the budget process this year. The city manager, who unlike myself is a proponent of moving to curbside pickup, said in his budget cover memo: "As we look at the numbers more closely, we realize that if there were to be a decision now to convert to curbside collection of garbage, there would be no actual budgetary savings during the 04-05 fiscal year." So to all the curbside enthusiasts, please hold off until the next time the topic is rehashed. It cannot help this year’s budget.
Two-thirds bonds and sidewalks: The city council on March 22 approved issuance of $6 million in "two-thirds" bonds for capital improvement projects in streets and sidewalks, public safety, and parks and recreation. These include street resurfacing, bridge replacement, fire department equipment, and similar priority projects. In studying the list, I noted that one project, Shattalon Drive intersection improvements, is a candidate for partial state financing. At my suggestion, the council agreed that if state funding is obtained for that project, then any freed local bond money will be reallocated to new sidewalk construction. This move could free up as much as $500,000 for new sidewalks, but we won’t know whether that will happen until later this year. Funds are scarce these days, and I am continuing to look out for ways to pay for the additional sidewalks we need to make our city more walkable. They’re a boost to health, safety, and quality of life.
Transportation items: Those who have to take Hanes Mall Boulevard will be pleased to hear that plans continue to progress for the widening of the road and its bridge over I-40. The city council on March 22 approved the official agreement with N.C. Dept. of Transportation (DOT) to participate in that project. Work is scheduled to begin in the coming fiscal year.
Supporters of returning passenger rail service to Winston-Salem will appreciate another incremental step forward in that regard. April 26 will see the formal opening of the Winston-Salem Amtrak Connector shuttle service to the High Point train station. The High Point service will permit easy connections both north- and southbound on the Carolinian between Charlotte and New York City, and the Piedmont between Charlotte and Raleigh. Check www.amtrak.com for schedules.
Finally, the Winston-Salem Transit Authority has bought two hybrid-electric trolley buses, to be delivered in June or July. They’ll save on gas and reduce air pollution. They can run up to 10 miles on stored battery power alone or indefinitely on their combination of battery power and a small gas engine.
Economic development news: Bekaert Textiles USA confirmed that it will build an $11.5 million expansion of its operations in the Union Cross Business Park. Winston-Salem and Forsyth County in March agreed to provide economic incentives for the expansion, which will also add 40 to 50 jobs. New property tax revenues alone will substantially exceed the incentives provided.
Community planting and cleanup opportunities: Keep Winston-Salem Beautiful has scheduled two of its big events for this month. First, "Community Roots Day", the annual tree planting extravaganza, will be held this Saturday, April 3, from 9 a.m. to noon in the Sunnyside neighborhood this year. Meet in the parking lot of Sunnyside Ministries at 319 Haled Street. Second, the citywide "Great Winston-Salem Cleanup" will be held Saturday, April 17, from 9 a.m. to noon. Groups and individuals can sign up to clean specific areas or be assigned to areas. For more information on both events, contact George Stilphen at 727-8013, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.