March 2009 Highlights

Planning to help obtain, and effectively use, federal Recovery Act funds for Winston-Salem was again my biggest focus in March.

Recovery Act funding planned for local priorities:     In March, I and other Winston-Salem city staff and elected officials directed much of our time and effort toward getting and planning the use of federal Recovery Act funds for Winston-Salem public priorities.  We now have a far clearer picture of the funds we know that Winston-Salem will receive, as well as other money for which we can apply.

     The following are among the noteworthy areas in which financial assistance is to be received, the amounts Winston-Salem should get, and some of our local designated priority uses:

  • Surface transportation system (including repaving roads and highways, intersection safety improvements, sidewalks, bike facilities, and greenways).  Originally, we anticipated receiving through our regional metropolitan planning organization a substantial part of $8.2 million.  However, working with that group and the state Dept. of Transportation, we've been able to apply those funds and free up $11.15 million more from other state road projects, which can in turn be applied to our local transportation capital needs.
  • Public transit (WSTA bus system), estimated $3.8 million.
  • Police operations, about $900,000.
  • Community Development Block Grants (primarily housing assistance), estimated $489,000.
  • Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants formula funding (more efficient lighting, building heating and air conditioning improvements, and other energy efficiencies), about $2.25 million.
  • Homelessness prevention efforts, estimated $789,000.

In addition to these known amounts, the city will be pursuing competitive grants in these and other local public priority areas which could total several million additional dollars.  Possible projects include the new public safety training and evidence storage facility, alternative-fuel city vehicles, and wastewater system improvements.  As we receive word of application successes, I'll include details in future updates.

NLC Conference report:      How to obtain and effectively use Recovery Act funds was the focus of the National League of Cities (NLC) conference in Washington which I and other city representatives attended March 15-17.  I concentrated on workshops dealing with transportation, energy, and water infrastructure.  I was able to bring back ideas which I am optimistic will help Winston-Salem successfully address several million dollars in energy efficiency, roads and sidewalks, and other local needs.  Other city representatives concentrated on other key areas, including public safety and housing concerns.  Some of the relevant details are noted above in the first item in this month's update.  If you would like further details from the conference, please let me know, and I'll send you my more complete summary.

     In sum, payback from the insights and contacts information we brought back from Washington should repay the costs of the travel many times over.  Regardless, I understand the tightness of our current budget situation and cut costs wherever possible—including traveling by Amtrak train ($100 round-trip ticket) instead of flying, and taking the Metro subway (no taxis) while in Washington.   

Early budget outlook:     On March 30, the full City Council took our first formal public look at our detailed budget prospects for fiscal year 2009-2010.  The good news is that the city manager and budget staff have managed to put together a draft budget which should enable us to avoid a property tax rate increase, without cutting services or laying off city staff.  This is in substantial part a result of early preventive measures we began taking last fall, including a freeze on hiring in most departments, as well as directives to most city offices to find ways to cut back on purchases and any unnecessary expenditures.  Achieving these cost controls will result in an absolute decrease in our general fund operating budget of about 1.5% (2009-2010 budget compared to 2008-2009). 

     The bad news of these cutbacks includes a freeze on pay increases for city staff—including merit increases and market adjustments for underpaid positions.  Some staff openings which are now frozen unfilled will in the long term have an adverse effect on service delivery if not filled eventually.  Finally, many capital purchases can be postponed for a time without undue harm to city services or infrastructure safety, but not indefinitely.  Therefore, the projected austerity budget represents a responsible stopgap to get the city through an especially tough budget year, but not a sustainable trend over the long run.  Already, we're looking ahead to other financial issues which will have to be dealt with starting next year, including the costs of operating our solid waste system, our storm sewer system, and our public transit.