BY DEBBIE PAGE
The Troutman Town Council approved the town’s 2020-21 budget, which underwent serious consideration and change since the council’s late February budget retreat and the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis.
During Thursday’s council meeting, Interim Town Manager Jim Freeman noted that the $7,129,313 budget — $4,691,101 in General Operation and $2,438,212 in Utility Services — is balanced and “outlines policy direction and serves as an understanding of the town’s fiscal year operating and capital programs.”
“It reflects the town’s commitment to maintain quality services along with striving to address growth and potential pandemic-related economic challenges while keeping the impact of taxes and fees to citizens at an acceptable minimum level.”
Freeman noted that because property taxes, general fund taxes, sales tax revenue, permit fees, and utility sales tax revenues may fall, he and Finance Director Steve Shealy, with the council’s guidance, created a conservative, balanced budget for the coming fiscal year.
Utility collection and use may also fall, affecting the Utility Fund as well. Gov. Roy Cooper’s Executive Order prohibiting disconnections and requiring a 6-month utility repayment plan, could result in bill delinquency, though Shealy said utility bill collection rates have remained stable so far.
However, Freeman noted reduced water and sewer usage at area schools, businesses, and industries during the pandemic lockdown will result in some loss of revenue for the town’s utility fund.
The town’s 53 percent fund balance of $2,143,479 provides the town with a healthy cushion for the lean times ahead.
The revised budget excludes a planned $450,000 parking lot for ESC Park, which will be needed for the two baseball fields currently under construction. Council members want to wait until after the first of the year before committing to this large project.
Council members also removed costs related to a requested second police K-9 ($28,500, excluding the cost of the dog, which was expected to be donated).
The budget includes $212,353 in a contingency fund for requested projects that will be funded only if the town’s financial condition allows.
TAX RATES QUESTIONED
During the public hearing prior to the budget vote, Jim McNiff addressed the council on the topic of taxes.
McNiff urged council members to carefully distinguish between needs and wants. If there’s money left after funding the “needs,” then the council can look at its “wants,” he said.
After congratulating the council for building a 53 percent fund balance to help the town through lean times, McNiff noted that in 2016 when the council raised property taxes from 47 to 52 cents per $100 valuation, council members said the tax could be rescinded after reaching its savings goals.
David Treme, interim town manager in 2016, said 3.1 cents of the increase would reimburse the general fund for past projects, including the ESC Park pavilion and other improvements.
The council then set a goal to increase the fund balance to the fiscally conservative 50 percent level. In the 2015 audit, the fund was at 38 percent, which did not give the town a safe financial cushion for unexpected emergencies.
McNiff, who has asked the council each year since about repealing the tax increase, pointed out that the council has now surpassed its 50 percent goal.
With the pandemic causing loss of jobs, reduced income, and job furloughs, McNiff said one way that the council could lighten citizens’ load is to roll back that tax hike to help people better afford to live in Troutman.
McNiff also decried the money spent on severance packages for the frequently departing town managers over the past few years, noting that council members must be more careful with taxpayers’ money in the current climate.
Mayor Teross Young, noting the healthy reserve, hoped it will help the town fare positively in the current economic crisis. However, he said the council should consider looking at the tax rate in the future after the council better understands the extent of the pandemic’s impact on town revenues.
After a spirited discussion at Monday’s pre-agenda meeting, the council included a 1 percent cost-of-living increase for all employees, keeping an additional 1.5 percent in merit bonuses in contingency funds until after the first of the year when the expected budget shortfall are clearer.
Freeman said mandated state retirement system cost increases (9.7 to 10.84 percent for law enforcement and 9.09 to 10.29 percent for other town employees) as well as a 2 percent increase in health insurance costs also impacted the budget.
The proposed tax rate remains at 52 cents per $100 valuation, but a 2 percent increase in sewer rates is required to cover rising sewer service fees from contracted providers.
The new rate will be $10.94 per 1,000 gallons in town and $21.88 per 1,000 gallons for out of town customers. Shealy said the average family uses about 4,000 gallons per month.
The Utility System Development Fee Structure is currently $2,000 for water and $3,000 for sewer connection, but these fees will probably rise in the next few months to comply with new state statutes.
The driveway permit fee will rise from $5 to $25, after many years at this level, to better reflect the true cost of processing it, according to Shealy.
The budget includes new funding for new part-time positions in the Recreation and Planning Departments as well as increased Code Enforcement Officer hours.
Recreation also received funds to purchase a new Christmas tree and additional greenway holiday lights ($20,000) and playground equipment replacement and upgrades ($20,000).
Money is also included in contingency for a possible fifth SRO position ($74,353) that is still in negotiation for Troutman Elementary and Iredell Charter Academy.
Planning Department Projects for ETJ Expansion ($10,000), a Small Area Plan for the Autumn Leaf and Perth Road intersection ($35,000), and Gateway project ($35,000) were put in the budget contingency fund for expenditure if finances allow.
If awarded, the council also funded the NCDOT Bike/Pedestrian Grant matching funds (10% match – estimated $2,500-$3,500) in the budget.
Street sweeping and limb pickup services are increasing because of increased customers and streets with growth, but some funds were saved this year because snow removal services were not needed.
A $12,000 contingency is included for a council-requested social media/public information intern and for upgrades to the Council Chambers for better sound and video capabilities for meetings and broadcasts to the community.
TROUTMAN POLICE DEPARTMENT
The Troutman Police Department, which accounts for about one-third of the town’s revenue stream according to council member Paul Bryant, also had significant budget increases.
These include $28,000 for 14 Flock license plate cameras, $90,000 for two police vehicles ($45,000 for a third vehicle is in the contingency budget), and $14,000 for eight radios to finish replacing outdated ones that are no longer tech supported.
Five radios were purchased in this year’s budget.
Seven of the departments vehicles are currently over 100,000 miles. At the pre-agenda meeting on Monday, council members debated the policy set several years ago that recommended vehicle replacement at that mark.
Council member Paul Henkel felt that the policy required “common sense” for vehicles still working well with low maintenance costs, especially for those for SROs that require limited vehicle use.
Chief Tina Fleming asserted that the vehicles, in which officers spend up to 12 hours per day, are essentially their offices. She also pointed out that inferior vehicles affected officer safety as well as citizen safety if a vehicle breakdown kept an officer from a call.
Council member Eddie Nau questioned why the department could not purchase cars rather than SUVs, which are $10,000 to $15,000 cheaper.
Fleming, who prefers SUVs because of officer comfort, equipment issues, and better reliability and performance, agreed to investigate other vehicle options prior to purchasing any vehicles.
Bryant pointed out that SRO costs were also a drain on the budget. If all direct salary costs and indirect costs (equipment, training, weapons, vehicle) are added for the current SROS and proposed fifth one, the town will spend $479,500.
The school system covers 83 percent of SRO costs for 10 months of salary and benefits, with the town picking up 17 percent of salary as well as additional vehicle and equipment costs. The school system also provides holidays and vacation fo SROs during those ten months.
Bryant asked Fleming to commit to getting the SRO committee, comprised of Troutman, county, and school board officials, together again soon to ensure Troutman is being fairly compensated for SRO costs.
Two new potential capital utility improvement projects should occur in this fiscal year, including the long-awaited $1.1 million Mill Village Wastewater collection rehabilitation project (slated to begin this year) and the $856,000 Troutman, County, and Children’s Hope Alliance Wastewater Collection System Partnership Project, expected to be bid out in the second quarter of 2021.
Mayor Young presented Freeman with a plaque thanking him for his exemplary service during his interim tenure, which ends on June 26. Young said the Town Manager search process is continuing and will hopefully result in a candidate soon.
Young commended the retired Freeman, who has years of manager experience, for stepping up to serve the town after the council parted ways with former Town Manager Justin Longino.
“He was not just a caretaker. He assisted in any way he could. He moved the town forward and left us in good shape.”
Young praised Freeman’s successes, his ability to face the many challenges of the past few months, and his seizing of opportunities to improve the town.
“After accepting the plaque, Freeman said, “I’ve always wanted to give back more than I got. I’m so pleased to have taken this.”
“I think in the end we all ended up working as a team.”
Henkel also praised Freeman, saying that he “helped us through a difficult time. You wanted to get involved and keep us moving forward. We were lucky to have you not only as an interim manager but as a citizen.”
♦ Bryant reported that three area projects are on indefinite hold because of the NCDOT’s $300 million shortfall. These include the Flower House Loop/Houston Road realignment, the Cornelius/Perth Road roundabout, and the four-lane expansion of Brawley School Road from Talbert Road to Highway 21.
♦ Bryant reported that Public Works and Planning staff have fixed issues at the town-owned property on Wagner Street, including power washing the sidewalk. Bryant is on a committee working on next steps for the property and a recommendation to present to council.
♦ The council is considering citizens’ suggestions to improve relationships and interactions with the police, possibly utilizing videos, pamphlets, and power bill inserts. Henkel said that the more education the town can provide, the better. “We all want to see better relations between our citizenry and law enforcement.”
♦ Freeman said that negotiations with Statesville about boundary annexation issues have broken down. He suggested, after a new town manager is hired and has time to acclimate, that negotiations resume with just the mayors and town managers for a more productive process.
♦ The town has about $102,000 left after recent street projects were completed under budget. The council decided to revisit street need lists and bid out a new project for some high priority areas for repaving and repairs using the money. The council hopes to take advantage of lower construction costs in the economic downturn.