BY DEBBIE PAGE
debbiepage.iredellfreenews@gmail.com

Manager Ron Wyatt and Finance Director Justin Mundy presented the draft of the proposed 2022-2023 Town of Troutman budget to the Town Council on Tuesday during a day-long planning session, warning council members of looming budget pressure due to the rising costs of goods and labor.

This proposed draft of the 2022-2023 budget totaled $5,905,790, an increase of $46,000 over the current fiscal year and $430,000 below 2020-2021.

Town officials did not propose increasing the town property tax rate — currently 52 cents per $100 valuation — during the meeting.

POLICE DEPARTMENT

Mundy and Police Chief Josh Watson requested a nearly $450,000 increase over this fiscal year’s budget, with about $400,000 of the increase earmarked for a recently added evidence technician position, two additional officers, and salaries, as well as FICA tax, group insurance, and retirement for all the police department staff.

Watson said the additional officers are needed to provide service to new developments and annexed areas of the town.

In capital expenses, the department is also requesting funding for three police vehicles, with $137,000 of additional funds added to the $87,000 still remaining in this year’s budget. Watson said the department’s aging, high-mileage fleet, increasing repair costs, and additional officers warranted the expenditure.

The department is still awaiting already ordered vehicles, now expected in late summer after supply chain issues forced production delays.

The department is reducing the number of FLOCK cameras it uses from 15 to 12, removing them from secondary roads, which will save $6,000 annually. Watson said the cameras are a valuable tool to keep the community safe, with Wyatt sharing that the cameras recently aided in solving a murder case, several kidnappings, and an “astronomical number” of stolen cars.

Watson said the police technician position is instrumental in implementing and streamlining procedures. The technician properly documents and stores evidence, makes case files, conducts many fingerprint appointments, and collects data to use in applying for grants and creating reports.

The technician also created uniform procedures and processes to collect evidence and create reports to help ensure more effective prosecution.

Once a required separate and secure location is ready, Wyatt hopes to add passport services to the position as well.

PUBLIC WORKS

Much of the council’s morning session discussion centered on rising water costs and the recent discovery of unrecovered costs for additional services (recycling, leaf and limb pickup, street cleaning, and snow removal) that council feels should be revenue neutral.

Wyatt said the local government is required by state statute to provide public safety and garbage services as part of the ad valorem property tax; however, when the town added recycling about two decades ago, it charged a $1.80 fee, a charge that was never raised even as the cost to the town increased and other services were added. The council recently discovered that $211,000 of these costs were not being recovered.

Wyatt objected to raising ad valorem taxes to recoup the money because that unfairly equates to residents paying different costs for the same service, depending on their home’s value. Raising the monthly fee from $1.80 to $7.64 would cover those costs.

Citizens cannot opt out of the additional services, even if they don’t use them. “Very few don’t use these services,” added Wyatt.

Mayor Teross Young stated that the town must recover the costs for these services, which will only rise in the future. “We have the services and must pay for them and be transparent about it,” he said.

Public Works Director Adam Lippard added that continuing to “absorb costs is not sustainable, especially as we are growing.”

Council member Eddie Nau was adamant that the town proceed with some method of recovering the service costs.

“We have to be apologetic that we allowed the situation to happen and be transparent about why we have to do this to correct the situation. Nobody on the council now was here when the problem began,” Nau said.

Water costs are also rising, with the town recently being notified of a new 7 percent increase on top of several smaller increases over the past 10 years. Compounded, water costs for the town have risen 25 percent, while the town rate only increased once 1.5 percent.

Though residents complain about water and sewer costs, the town has been able to absorb these increases, said Wyatt.

“We cannot go out here and hijack our citizens based on the errors that staff or others have done or things they failed to do. I cannot speak for what people did or did not do,” said Wyatt. “EnergyUnited is simply passing its costs on to us.”

“It’s the cost of doing business at the end of the day,” added Wyatt, who noted that ad valorem taxes are not supposed to be used to offset utility services.

Wyatt proposed a 20 percent water increase, which also affect sewer costs as well. For 2,000 gallons of water usage and sewer, a customer’s bill would rise a total of $7.46.

Though Statesville and Mooresville may have lower water and sewer rates, their property tax rates are higher. Additionally, these municipalities have water treatment plants, so they do not have to pay the “middleman,” added council member Paul Henkel.

“No one wanted to get the flack for raising water rates over the years,” said Henkel. “We’ve been kicking the can down the road for too long. Especially with inflation with what it is now, we cannot continue to do it.”

“We have to pay the bills. We’ve got to face it and step up.”

2021-22 budget requests for water purchase and sewer treatment are also rising to accommodate growth. Water purchases are expected to rise from $450,000 to $600,000 and sewer treatment from $565,000 to $615,000. Additional sewer capacity is projected to cost $233,220.

Street maintenance costs are also rising about $75,000 to cover additional streets.

Lippard is also adding an additional position to meet increased workloads due to area growth.

PARKS AND RECREATION DEPARTMENT

Parks and Recreation Department Director Chip Smith is requesting an additional full-time staffer to help oversee the additional athletic and recreational facilities and the increasing town activities with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.

Other requests include an additional $9,000 in maintenance and repair funds and a $9,000 increase in contracted services for sports camps, race timers, and other activities.

The P & R budget request also again asks for $325,000 to add to this year’s $325,000 allocation to construct a concession stand and bathrooms at the baseball field. The expected construction cost is $480,000, with the remainder going toward lighting.

The Rotary Club is sponsoring the scoreboards, and Smith and the Parks and Recreation Committee are starting an effort to garner large sponsorships to help pay for other improvements, including lighting for ESC Park and athletic fields.

Wyatt is currently soliciting quotes for lighting, with quotes of $185,000 to $225,000 for just the baseball fields. He is awaiting a quote from MUSCO to provide lighting for all athletic fields and the park.

Smith and Wyatt were impressed with Musco’s representative, who educated them on lighting design and foresaw other needs they had not considered. The company offers ten-year financing and a 25-year warranty, and Nau, who has worked at several pro sports facilities, said the company provides great customer service.

The company designs and angles lighting to maximize field illumination while minimizing light spillage off the field. The different lighting areas can also be put on timers, and lights can be operated through Smith’s cell phone.

Council member Felina Harris, who works for Mecklenburg County, affirmed Nau’s praise, saying the county uses Musco at its facilities. Their product is more expensive, but “you get what you pay for.”

Wyatt noted they get one chance to light this field, and his priority was to get the project “done right.”

Council members also discussed the need for a chamber of commerce type group for Troutman to assist in park and town events. Alcohol sales at some town events must be funneled through a nonprofit.

Henkel noted the challenges of getting busy business owners involved to create such a 501(c)3 group and maintain an active and involved membership.

PLANNING DEPARTMENT

Planning Department Director Lynne Hair’s request focused on technology to improve department services and to store and retrieve documents and records. The department staff will move to the “white house” next to Town Hall soon, so fiber technology was installed for optimal speed and reliability at a cost of nearly $5,000.

Technology expenses also rose with the purchase of a program to complete online permit requests and fee payments. Other programs will assist with digital document storage to facilitate quicker access and generate reports.

Though the department is moving its offices next door, public interactions with still occur at Town Hall. Hair also is looking into installing a kiosk in the Town Hall lobby to serve customers’ needs for documents, completing applications, and general planning and zoning information.

Henkel and Nau questioned whether the town had grown to the point that a full-time code enforcement officer was needed. Currently, the town contracts an officer one day per week.

Hair was willing to add this position under her direction, but she warned that training, learning the town and its culture, and creating processes will take time. The position also requires a special kind of experienced person who can enforce codes and regulations while also working to mitigate the problem in a reasonable, non-provoking manner.

Former law enforcement or military veterans often have the right mix of qualities, according to Hair. Each code enforcement case takes time and patience, ranging from simple from letters and personal discussions to hearings and citations if problems are not resolved.

Code officers have to work with people. “It’s not always black and white, and there are two sides to every story,” said Hair.

Sometimes violations occur because the homeowner is elderly and cannot complete yard or maintenance work and lacks family to help. In those types of cases, the officer can work with the citizen and perhaps help with acquiring community assistance.

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