The FY 2013 city budget maintains core public services, imposes new spending efficiencies, and includes a small tax rate increase.
City budget approved: The city council at our June 18 meeting adopted a compromise budget that trimmed back the city manager's original proposed property tax rate increase from 4.2 cents to 1.6 cents. In order to do that with a balanced budget without drastic cuts to core public services, we had to identify and approve $6 million in other cuts. These will include efficiency-based cuts to management and professional positions, cuts to funding for parking decks, cuts to travel budgets, cuts to employee pay adjustments, and more. The manager's recommended budget had already incorporated major savings such as the implementation of the new bi-weekly rollout cart recycling collection.
The budget maintains all authorized police officer positions despite the expiration of grant assistance for these positions; maintains transit services without increasing fares; and maintains other core services like sanitation without adding or increasing fees. The budget totals $392 million with a property tax rate of 49.1 cents. Winston-Salem's tax rate will continue to be well below comparable cities like Greensboro and Durham, and our combined taxes and fees burden for the typical resident will be below those cities and Charlotte and Raleigh as well.
One of these points bears special emphasis. Winston-Salem has 33 police officer positions which were created using state and federal grant funding--grants which are expiring this year and next. Unless we replaced those grants with local tax funding, we would have lost close to 10% of the officers patrolling our streets. That would have been absolutely unacceptable to public safety, in my view; but keeping those positions added almost $1 million to our local costs in this year's budget alone.
One other overall explanatory note is important. Given that our local economy is well into the phase of pulling out of the 2008-09 recession, why is this a tougher budget year than the past three? Part of the answer is that our revenues from other government sources are dropping in some key areas, including the law enforcement grants and an expiring special recurring payment from the state. (That is the so-called "hold harmless" funding, intended to make up on a temporary basis the loss suffered by cities when the state legislature repealed some local tax sources a few years ago.) Another part is that local tax revenues are among what economists call "trailing indicators"--factors that take a while to react to changes in the economy, good or bad. Our local property tax revenues dipped this year (and may again next year) because of effects from the '08-'09 recession. Our revenues should start to recover a couple of years from now, but in the meantime we're dealing with the dip. We had already made most of the budget adjustments that did not require serious service reductions in previous budgets, leaving us with less maneuvering room this year.
Independence Day week sanitation collection changes: Don't forget that the Independence Day holiday falling on Wednesday next week will mean changes in the city sanitation collection schedule.
--Garbage: Tuesday normal schedule; Wednesday and Thursday postponed one day; Friday collected on Monday, July 9.
--Recycling: Blue Week routes only; Monday and Tuesday normal schedule; Wednesday--Friday postponed one day.
--Yard-waste carts: Monday and Tuesday normal schedule; Wednesday and Thursday postponed one day.
Transit and the budget: Finances and planning for our Winston-Salem transit system (city buses) deserve a little more discussion this month in connection with the budget adoption. Exhaustion of reserves in our mass transit fund was another of the factors hitting our budget this year. Those reserves had been dropping for several years while we debated how to address the shortcomings in our bus system. This year we ran out of time. Our budget this year increases the local funding going to run our transit.
The decision on how to handle declining transit fund reserves was postponed longer than it should have been, for two primary reasons. First, most of us realized that we were ultimately going to have to put more local funding into the system, and we all realized that it was going to be largely unpopular to do so. Even though an effective public transit system benefits everyone in our city by reducing the miles driven by vehicles on our streets, and by helping thousands of citizens get to work every day, most people don't think of those benefits. (Fewer autos on the streets means less air pollution, less wear and tear on the pavement, and less congestion at rush hours.) Only a minority of city residents ever actually ride the buses themselves. Therefore, the automatic response of many people is to think that the transit system doesn't benefit them. Second, there was no consensus on the council about how to deal with the problem. Some council members would have increased bus fares while making further service cuts to an already bare-bones system. Others of us want to improve the system, but have different ideas on how to do so.
I vigorously opposed the option of increasing fares while further cutting service. The proposal to hike fares by 30% would have placed a disproportionate financial burden on thousands of our city's citizens who are least able to afford it. The typical city bus rider in the Southwest Ward is someone using the bus to get to and from work at one of our major medical centers or the retail stores and restaurants along Stratford Road and Hanes Mall Boulevard, or to get to school at Forsyth Tech (main or west campuses). A 30% hike in this typical rider's fares would have cost him or her a minimum of an extra $108 per year; and most of those riders are using the bus because they can't afford a car. They are 'captive' riders. As one bus rider said, if fares went up by 30%, he would have to walk 30% more of the time.
The limitations on our transit system are not a result of low fares. Winston-Salem's bus fares are the same or higher than those of six out of the other eight cities in North Carolina which operate bus systems. At the same time, our per capita local funding provided to our transit system is dramatically lower than the other major cities in our state (Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro, and Raleigh).
Our city bus system has few discretionary riders because our bus service here is so limited. Bus frequency is low, only once per hour on most routes during most of the day. Relatively few people with other options will take the bus when it means adding an additional two hours to the time required for a cross-town trip. We are also the only major city in North Carolina which has no bus service at all on Sundays.
In connection with our budget discussions this year, the city council agreed that we have to get down to business, both on revenue sources for the system and on a comprehensive review of improving the system. As a first step, a final decision on the proposal to implement limited Sunday bus service on a 'pilot project' basis was postponed to this fall. In the meantime, we committed to meet and discuss with major non-profit institutional employers (like the medical centers) options for them to assist in financing the system improvements. I will be actively involved in this effort, and will report to you on its progress as it develops.
Greenway Plan Update adopted: On June 4, the city council approved the Greenway Plan Update. This thoughtful plan update recommends several priority greenway segments based on engineering feasibility, public support, and value of the segment in creating useful pedestrian and biking connections. Those priorities include two sections located in the Southwest Ward: Little Creek phase 2A from Atwood Road to Somerset Road; and Salem Creek westward extension from Marketplace Mall to the Forsyth Tech main campus. For the budget-conscious, I note that the plan does not make any new spending commitments; it just better organizes priorities among the possible greenways previously proposed. The full plan update is found online here: http://www.cityofws.org/Assets/CityOfWS/Documents/Planning/Publications/Parks_Greenways/Greenway_Plan_Update_20120514.pdf
The ribbon-cutting opening ceremony which was planned for June 22 for one long-awaited new greenway section has been rescheduled to Tuesday, July 10, at 10 a.m. The official opening for Brushy Fork Creek phase 3 between 5th Street and Lowery Street will be held on Old Greensboro Road near its intersection with 5th Street, and the interested public is invited to the event. Parking is available at Skyland Park, reachable from New Walkertown Road via Big House Gaines Boulevard. Wear walking shoes for a tour after the ceremony.
Cherokee Lane roundabout: Congratulations go to the neighborhood traffic calming committee involved in planning a new roundabout for the dangerous intersection of Cherokee Lane and Kenwood Street. Thanks to your success in obtaining support for the project from area residents, it was approved by the city council at our June 18 meeting. Money for the project cost, estimated at $85,000, will come from funds already set aside for such traffic calming projects. The project also includes painting center lines on Cherokee from Bolton Street to Ebert Street. Such lane markings often slow down average traffic speeds by reminding drivers to stay in their lanes and making the road "feel" narrower to drivers tempted to speed. Properly designed and located roundabouts (small traffic circles) are also useful in slowing traffic and making drivers more aware of vehicles coming out of cross streets. Prior to being approved by nearby residents, the Cherokee/Kenwood roundabout was approved and designed by the city's traffic safety engineers.
City summer youth programs: Winston-Salem's Recreation and Parks Department is sponsoring two summer youth programs which may be of interest to Southwest Ward residents.
For parents of younger children, there's Camp Little Creek, a morning day camp for 4-5 year olds. It costs $30/week for city residents, and registration is open for weeks through August 3. For more information: http://www.cityofws.org/Assets/CityOfWS//Documents/Recreation/LC-Registration%20Form_summer2012.pdf
For parents of teens age 13-16, there's Teen Night, a program to provide safe entertainment and activities each Friday evening from 6-10 p.m. through August 3. There are three locations: Polo Park Recreation Center, Martin Luther King Recreation Center, and 14th Street Recreation Center. For more information: http://www.cityofws.org/Home/Departments/MarketingAndCommunications/NewsArchive/News2012/Articles/RecreationCentersToHostTeenNights
Ardmore neighborhood Independence Day picnic: Finally this month, the Ardmore Neighborhood Association invites all neighbors to its annual 4th of July picnic next Wednesday, July 4, at Miller Park Shelter #1 from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. It's a potluck, so bring a side dish or desert to share. The event will include activities for kids, including a "red, white, and blue parade" for decorated bikes, strollers, and wagons.
I wish a safe and happy Independence Day holiday to all of you and your families!
That's my report for June. As always, you are welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with comments or questions. Thanks!