New garage, police headquarters, and fire station among priorities
BY STACIE LETT CAIN
While surrounded by the natural beauty of Lake Norman State Park, Statesville City Council members and city staff spent time over two days looking at something far less appealing.
Tax rates, financial forecasts, upcoming facility needs, utility revenues and employee salaries were among the topics discussed during the council’s annual retreat.
“We need to look at these numbers and make these decisions strategically,” Finance Director Chris Tucker advised the council. “Although we do not control all of these numbers, some we do, and changes we make have a ripple affect that moves through the entire budget.”
The numbers Tucker was referring to were General Fund revenues and expenditures for Fiscal Year 2020 with forecasted information through 2025. The city’s current tax rate is $.5478 per $100 of property valuation with revenues from those taxes making up 44 percent of the City’s revenue.
After identifying the major needs of various city departments, including the police and fire departments, raising the tax burden on property owners became a focus of debate.
Using a tool developed by Tucker to look at how changes made by council can affect the overall economic future of the city, the council again discussed whether or not to raise taxes to meet the needs expressed in public safety as well as electric utilities.
“I want to take this time to thank Mr. Tucker for his hard work in bringing us this tool and this information,” Councilman Steven Johnson told fellow council members and the few members of the public who attended the first day of the event. “I have been asking for this information for a very long time and this information that he has presented to us today is spot on.”
Although Tucker did not share real concerns over the city’s finances at this time, with major capital expenses on the horizon, as well as the immediate discussions about the Municipal Services Building which adds $11 million in debt to the city’s balance sheet, he stressed that future spending without a strategy could be detrimental to the city’s overall financial health.
City Manager Ron Smith shared with the council a list of immediate needs identified by staff. At the top of the list is a new garage/warehouse.
“The building we are now referring to as the Municipal Operations Center is in dire need of repair,” Smith said. “We have poor condition of the building, we have asbestos, we have about everything that needs to be dealt with in that building.”
The warehouse, as it has been historically referred to, was taken over by the City of Statesville in the 1970s. At that time, the city had a fleet of about 100 vehicles. Now the city has 400 vehicles, which are being services in the small, aging building.
“This issue is about facility, but it is also about how we are taking care of our employees and our equipment,” Smith explained. “We need to address this issue as a top priority. There are many other issues that are important and that, if not dire now, will be dire in the immediate future.”
One such issue is Fire Station No. 1, which was built 70 years ago and is in a state of disrepair such that it may be found to be no longer inhabitable for use by the fire department. An environmental study was ordered with the results expected by the end of March. If that study determines that the station has outlived its usefulness, an evacuation of the building may be necessary.
“Depending on the outcome of the study, we may be looking at the necessity of building a new Station No. 1 sooner, rather than later,” Mayor Costi Kutteh said. “If that happens, we aren’t going to have much time to make a decision.”
That point is what caused concern with council members Steve Johnson and David Jones.
“We are looking at a debt that will cause us to raise the tax rate by 3 cents,” Johnson said voicing his concern. “If we lock in that commitment and then this study comes back that we have no choice but to build a new fire station, we will once again be looking at raising taxes to cover that expense. There’s no financial plan, no strategy, just reaction. That’s not what we need to be doing.”
But it wasn’t as clear cut for Jones. His struggle was more how to balance fiscal responsibility with the need to provide necessary services to city residents.
“I don’t want to raise taxes. I don’t think anyone does,” he stated. “But I agree that we have a responsibility to provide necessary services and to do it in the best way possible. If this has been discussed and planned for years, at one point do we need to make a move to make it happen and stop just discussing it?”
But for councilmembers Doris Allison and Fredrick Foster, providing adequate funding for public safety must be a priority. That means paying for a new fire station and headquarters for the Statesville Police Department.
“They have made it clear that this is a need by both the fire and police departments,” Allison said. “It is our job to make sure that the citizens of this city are provided with these services and we need to support the people that provide those services. This shouldn’t even still be a discussion. We need to honor the decision we already made and move forward.”
Mayor Pro Tem William Morgan agreed that prolonging the discussion about the Municipal Services Building, which was initially planned as a facility for the SPD, SFD and an Iredell County EMS base, amounted to kicking the can down the road.
“This issue has been discussed, voted on and decided,” he said.
Citing a 2009 site plan that he provided to council, he illustrated that plans for a Municipal Services Building have been discussed for years by the council and that now was the time to proceed with those plans.
“We need to move forward, stop the discussions, honor the vote of the prior council, and proceed with plans for this building,” he said.
During early discussions, Morgan provided the mayor and council with an email from the office of Rep. Tim Moore, outlining plans for an AMTRAK passenger rail service in the Raleigh-Charlotte Piedmont Service Corridor which would include a bus service which would utilize the Depot, which currently houses the SPD Patrol Division. The NCDOT owns that property and will be reclaiming it in 12 to 18 months for the project.
“It will not be easy to rehouse that large of a part of our police department on short notice,” Morgan explained. “They are pretty clear about their intent to take back use of that building and we have the opportunity now to be proactive in dealing with how that will affect our police department.”
Although the council discussed at length options ranging from building a smaller building on the proposed location that could be expanded at a later time to renovating and adding on to the current police headquarters, to searching for an entirely new location, the council failed again to resolve the matter. It will be revisited again at the February council meeting.