by Josh Lanier
HUNTERSVILLE – Town Manager Greg Ferguson laid out a new proposed budget Friday, May 6, that does not include a tax increase but would see cuts to nearly every department.
Ferguson, at the request of the town board, gave commissioners a first look at the new budget that would decrease the town’s tax rate to 27.5 cents per $100 assessed value, balancing the average increase in assessed value that homeowners will see from the county’s revaluation of all property. In short, the average homeowner would not pay any extra on their property taxes, meaning a “revenue neutral” budget.
But to get the rate down, officials would have to make cuts everywhere, including eliminating proposed increases of more than $119,000 to fire services and more than $111,000 for the Huntersville Police Department. In all, the town would need to shed $545,142 from its earlier proposed budget, one that Ferguson presented a few days before Friday’s meeting. That budget would have pushed taxes up 1 cent, or about $20 per $200,000 assessed home value, but had none of the cutbacks.
Commissioners Charlie Jeter and Ken Lucas support a revenue-neutral budget, but Jeter doesn’t believe it will pass. He repeated throughout the meeting that the measure “doesn’t have the votes.”
Commissioners though seemed to be willing to compromise as they parsed the line items of cuts, meaning a much smaller tax increase and some services going untouched.
“There are things on this list that I would like to see us fund,” Commissioner Sarah McAulay said, “items I would support being put back in there.”
She asked for more time, however, to investigate the cuts before suggesting what to keep in the budget.
Commissioner Ron Julian said he wanted it all back in, aside from the $18,000 needed to purchase iPad tablet computers for board members to defray the cost of paper print-outs for commissioners during board meetings.
Spared from the cuts, so far, is enough money to give town employees 3 percent raises, their first in three years.
Tampering with those pay increases, about $300,000 in all, could result in employees leaving for better paying positions in neighboring towns, Julian said.
Lucas, however, said by removing those raises, many of the items on the chopping block could be saved. “Here we are hemming and hawing over” smaller amounts “when we’re ignoring the $300,000 elephant in the room,” he said.
Also safe in Ferguson’s pared-down budget is money for 10 police cruisers that would to replace aging cars.
But tension flared only when Jeter moved to cut all pay to Huntersville’s elected officials.
Jeter, along with commissioners McAulay, Julian and Lucas, said they would be willing to forgo their stipends, but McAulay and Julian said they would not vote for it.
They preferred to let commissioners voluntarily hand over their checks.
“I’m in no positions to know the finances of another commissioner,” McAulay said. “I do not know where they are financially.”
Commissioner Danae Caulfield said Jeter was seeking headlines.
“This may look good in the paper, but it is not fair to put someone on the spot like this,” she said.
Caulfield likened the move to a bait-and-switch tactic.
“You can’t get hired to do a job and as soon as you’re hired, be told you won’t be paid,” she said. “I couldn’t go to Greg (Ferguson) or Janet (Stoner, financial director) and say ‘Well, we can balance this budget this year but only if we don’t pay you.’”
Each commissioner gets a quarterly stipend of $1,250 and a $150 technology allowance for items like cell phones. Mayor Pro Tem McAulay gets $1,700 a quarter, and the mayor gets $2,625. In total next year, the seven members of the board would receive about $49,397.
What would be cut in a “revenue-neutral budget”?
Below is a breakdown of what cuts have been proposed, the department
affected and how much each cut is worth as provided by department leaders.
Paperless agenda packets $18,000
• Provide iPads and software to save on printing costs.
Finance and Administration
• Buying a new computer $1,500
• Cut money spent on contract services $3,800
• Traffic crash analysis $20,000
A study of car wrecks in the town and solutions to lower the numbers of incidents for policing and traffic planning.
• Intern for pedestrian plan $7,000
An intern to build a database of needs and action plan for sidewalks.
• Destruction of two homes designated to be torn down $10,000
The town has selected nine homes to tear down but will not decide which to demolish until the town board approves a budget.
• Two new positions $93,483
Most likely to be laborer and equipment operator positions, the jobs would help the overstretched department with street repairs, street construction, storm water/drainage repairs, sidewalk repairs and construction, mowing of streets, bulk item collection, snow/ice removal, litter pickup, traffic sign maintenance/replacement, holiday decoration installation and burial of dead animals.
The town currently has a little more than one employee for every 10,000 residents, far below comparable cities in North Carolina.
• Driver feedback signs $9,000
Sometimes referred to as radar trailers, this sign projects the speed of cars as they pass on a screen. These trailers are used to help curb speeding. The town’s current trailer is in disrepair, andt he requested sign would be more mobile than the trailer.
• A new truck $9,000
• Delay half of the scheduled sidewalk projects $30,000
Parks and Recreation
• Replace the playground at Greenway Park $20,000
The plastic playground equipment was installed in 1997 and is in disrepair and no longer under warranty. This playground has been failing for many years, and parks staff has retrofitted it with materials not meant for this type of structure. Deteriorating recycled plastic equipment could pose a safety concern.
• Replace Huntersville Athletic Park playgroup equipment $20,000
The plastic playground equipment was installed in 1997 and is in disrepair and no longer under warranty. The metal decking is breaking down, and the plastic components are deteriorating. Both issues pose safety concerns.
• Resurface the North Mecklenburg Park basketball courts $30,000
Heavily used, the courts are beginning to wear down. The courts were last resurfaced in 2006 and have begun to break apart, causing a safety concern.
• Repair the entrance and driveway at North Mecklenburg Park $15,000
The road deck is beginning to fall apart in some areas, and officials want to widen the exit to provide a better turning radius for drivers.
• New maintenance vehicle $8,500
Replace the Gator maintenance vehicle at Huntersville Athletic Park. The vehicle is used daily to drag fields, empty trash and basic maintenance but breaks down frequently.
• Victim’s advocate $16,656
Funded by the three north Mecklenburg towns, the victim’s advocate assists victims of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault. United Family Services, a help agency that has a victim’s assistance network, has been asking the towns to fund this position as the number of abuse cases grows. Court officials have asked for the advocate position as they consider assigning a magistrate to north Mecklenburg.
• Digital portable radios $21,000
The first year of a five-year plan, the radios officers carry with them will be upgraded to digital technology. The current analog radios work, but as agencies in other areas upgrade technology, the analog will become incompatible.
• Add 10 radios for new cars $38,000
Digital radios for 10 new cruisers funded in this budget.
• 10 percent reduction in uniform expenses $10,200
• 10 percent reduction in training $5,970
• A laser speed detection device $3,500
The laser speed detection device is similar to radar, but in some areas lasers are better to detect speeds. The device is the next piece of technology the department has in its efforts to slow drivers in residential areas.
• Reverse 911 $7,300
Reverse 911 systems are used to call all phones in the town to alert residents of a catastrophic event, evacuation notices and missing persons. If cut, police said they have no other system as effective and will fall back to using social media websites and the press to get pressing information out immediately.
• Move personnel into the Webb Building $8,826
Last year, police purchased the Webb & Allen Orthodontics building to use as an overflow building until a new police headquarters could be built. The money will be used to pay for landscaping, electricity and water service at that building.
• Arts and Science Council request $15,000
• Ada Jenkins Center request $5,000
Fire and safety
Note: Fire Departments will keep the same budgets as last year, but proposed increases would be cut.
• Remove Long Creek Fire and Rescue’s increase $45,890
• Remove North Mecklenburg Rescue’s increase $49,421
Adding additional personnel to have two rescue workers on every night of the week for safety. Currently, only one person is on for five nights each week.
• Reduce Huntersville Fire Department’s increase $24,096