June 2010 Highlights

In June, the City Council passed our city budget for FY 2011.

Budget adopted: After digging through the unsavory numbers since April, on June 21 the City Council adopted a final city budget for fiscal year 2010-2011.

As I reported in last month's update, due to the slow pace of recovery from the deep nationwide 2008-2009 recession, both sales and property tax revenues are projected to actually decline this fiscal year. Regardless, the costs which would be required to maintain the same (or better) level of services have kept increasing. The results of those clashing realities weren't pretty, and were necessarily reflected in the budget recommendations from our city manager. Total general fund operating expenditures were cut by 1.1% compared to last year's budget, a reduction of almost $2 million. That included elimination of 31 full-time staff positions, no staff pay increases for the second year in a row, and over $1 million in other operating cost cuts. Even with those cutbacks, the budget as adopted included a property tax rate increase of ¾ cent per $100 of taxable property, to generate about $1.56 million in additional revenue.

The final budget passed the council by a vote of 6-2, with me casting one of the dissenting “no” votes. While I believe that the city manager and the council's finance committee generally did a good job of cutting where possible, without endangering critical services, there was one major item I could not accept. That was the premature reduction in transfer from the Solid Waste Fund. (I discuss that issue in more detail below.) In terms of this year's budget, the result of that item was an avoidable additional ¼ cent on the property tax rate, which was why I voted no.

I want to thank everyone who participated in the budget discussions, and especially those who responded to my request for comments and savings suggestions. I received suggestions including across-the-board department cuts, eliminating city services ranging from the bus system to various sanitation programs (mostly waste collection items), dropping employee benefits like the health and pension plans, and consolidating various city and county departments.

Items which have been adopted include largely eliminating back-yard trash pickup (more on that below), an extended freeze on non-essential hiring , elimination of dozens of staff positions, and ideas which will help control health care costs. One further suggestion which will be studied this year is whether the city should drop its trash dumpster collection service entirely. There was insufficient clarity on whether that action would save or cost the city net expenses for us to make a final decision in this budget. (This issue refers to the dumpsters at businesses or multi-family residential complexes which are emptied by front-end loader trucks.)

Suggested changes which were not adopted included staff cutbacks that would have impacted our public safety services (especially police and fire), or elimination of employee retirement pensions (an idea prohibited by state law). We do expect an analysis to be prepared by the city manager this year on the consolidation of additional city departments, which could produce long-term budget savings.

Recycling and comprehensive solid waste management: As any major city ought to do, Winston-Salem operates a comprehensive solid waste management program for our residents, which includes curbside collection of regular household trash, recyclable materials, and compostable yard wastes. Our city also happens to be one of a shrinking number of cities which own and operate their own municipal solid waste landfills.

Since 1990, the management of our landfill has been delegated to a City/County Utilities Commission (CCUC), a body jointly appointed by the Winston-Salem City Council and the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners. That CCUC also oversees our local water and wastewater treatment and distribution systems. In my view, the CCUC does a generally good job of managing our water and wastewater system. Unfortunately, the CCUC has never fully accepted the concept that our solid waste management programs must be operated as an integrated whole. Instead, it operates on the assumption that the landfill finances should be separated from other solid waste management functions, including the costs of our recycling programs.

I believe that is bad policy. North Carolina state law strongly encourages waste reduction, including explicitly favoring recycling over landfilling of municipal solid wastes. There are very good reasons for that: Recycling saves energy and other resources. Landfills create pollution, including some inevitable level of risk for contamination of ground and surface waters. And no one likes having a landfill for a neighbor. While a well-operated landfill can minimize many of those impacts, it cannot eliminate them.

In addition, the idea that we should artificially segregate landfill costs from recycling costs is based on the fallacious assumption that landfill revenues are not city resources. In fact, however, the city built that landfill and continues to own it. The city is the financially responsible party for its costs, including expansions, closure, and monitoring costs. The city even pays a very substantial part of the tipping fees which support the landfill operations themselves.

We must get beyond the artificial focus on “protecting the solid waste fund” for the landfill, and instead create a sustainable, long-term plan for the management of our solid wastes. That plan must include a realistic way to pay for all of those costs, while encouraging waste reduction. The time to conduct that planning is this coming year, and it will only happen if we demand that all our waste management strategies (landfills, recycling, composting, and perhaps waste-to-energy systems) be considered and managed as a whole. I will work to see that done this year.

Trash pickup change: One of the major cost-cutting measures included in this year's budget is the elimination (as of this October) of most back-yard trash pickup. This is a proposal which has been hotly debated for years, and one which I previously resisted. My opposition had been based on concern for our elderly and handicapped residents for whom rolling a heavy cart to the curb and back would be a hardship, and the promise I made to them when I first ran for city office in 2001 to protect their service.

Since that time, the city initiated its voluntary curbside collection alternative, which by this year has been so positively received by most citizens that about 65% of residential households are already rolling their trash to the curb. That has smoothed the way for a transition to mandatory curbside pickup for most households.

In addition, the curbside collection rules as adopted contain an exception for homes in which no permanent resident is capable of rolling the new cart to and from the curb without physical hardship. That will protect those citizens who are truly physically limited in their capacities. They need only fill out and return a city form certifying that fact.

The savings from this change will be phased in over the next few years. In this upcoming fiscal year, the savings will only be an estimated $176,000, due to the costs of buying enough additional rollout carts to cover the households which don't have them yet. In future years, however net annual taxpayer savings are expected to reach about $500,000 per year.

Citizens' Policy Academy: Applications are now being accepted for participation in the fall session of Winston-Salem's Citizens' Police Academy, which will begin September 2. This is a program to better show citizens the kinds of challenges and issues dealt with by the police department here and in law enforcement generally, including crime prevention, investigations, criminal law, and issues from domestic violence to drug problems. The program lasts 13 weeks and consists of training sessions each Thursday evening from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m.

Enrollment is open to any Winston-Salem resident 18 or older. The class is limited to 30 individuals, and applications must be submitted by August 6. For more information, see the police department's website at www.wspd.org or call 726-2029.

Happy Independence Day! This weekend includes July 4, the day we celebrate the 234th anniversary of the signing of our declaration of independence as a nation. I hope that you will all have the opportunity to enjoy a celebration with family and friends. If you travel, please drive carefully. And please take the time to think of and thank all those who can't be home for the holidays this year because they're protecting our nation's safety today.