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Archive for the ‘Budgets and taxes’ Category

The May 20 edition of the Messenger has a snapshot of facts and figures surrounding the proposed Mount Airy city budget for 2009-2010, all culled from the more expansive budget message you can read here provided by City Manager Don Brookshire. Documents this big can be critiqued in whole bunch of ways, but the central theme of this one seems to be “spare some pain now, bite the bullet later.” Unless the city plans to significantly cut back its scope of services (which is always an option) the budget essentially puts future city councils in the hole for all the supplies, capital purchases and pay raises left out this time around. But it does provide a bit of much needed tax relief and spares water users any more rate hikes. Given the current trajectory of the  economy, is this the right approach to take?

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Securing council approval proved difficult, and reaching consensus impossible, the last time Mount Airy put together a budget. The hard part was that cuts had to come from somewhere lest taxes go up, and there was plenty of last minute wrangling to decide what got the axe.

So this year the council is getting a bit of a head start on setting priorities. As outlined in the Jan. 28 Messenger, they’ve gone ahead and ranked on a scale of 1-10 the necessity of every service the city provides. Average the scores out and you have rankings for more than 300 functions of city government that will serve as a starting point for discussions during this week’s council retreat on what can be cut in the new budget. While the items scoring perfect 10s or those with the lowest marks immediately catch the eye, it’s the middle range where some of the more interesting questions arise. Services that averaged between 6.0 and 8.0 are the kinds some would regard as luxuries while others defend as absolute essentials. Consider the following list, all of which scored low enough to at least merit some debate this week on their importance.

—maintaining sidewalks
—leaf collections in the fall
—Christmas tree collections in the winter
—cleaning the streets with a sweeper and flusher
—maintaining landscape beds such as the war memorial
—tuition reimbursements for city employees continuing their education
—public safety education programs for residents
—security surveys of business and residential properties
—recreation programs geared to teens or senior citizens

That’s just a sampler. Taken together the rankings could spark a lively debate on the proper role of local government.

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Now that the dust has settled on budgets for the 2008-2009 fiscal year, we can take a step back and see how our county compares to its neighbors in the piedmont or its counterparts across the state. The North Carolina Association of County Commissioners compiled the new property tax rates (along with any changes) and put them online here. It looks like the county, by keeping taxes at the revenue neutral rate, pretty much followed the state trend.

I haven’t been able to find a comprehensive listing of municipal tax rates for 08-09. One interesting document, however, is a survey (the results of which are attached below) of municipal officials across the state asking what their towns/cities did to balance budgets for the 2007-2008 year. The top four methods: raise fees, reduce capital spending, dip into savings and reduce general fund spending. Raising taxes was further down the list.

Sound familiar? To deal with budget crunches the past two years, Mount Airy has massively increased utility fees, reduced capital spending this year, dipped into savings last year and reduced general fund spending a bit this year. They didn’t raise taxes, actually lowering them this year a cent below the revenue neutral rate. Once again, we’re lockstep with state trends.

taxsurveyfy2007-2008memo


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The process of settling on a spending plan for Mount Airy has produced an ample supply of analogies and metaphors both acute (Todd Harris comparing the city’s ride of industrial users to pay water expansion debt to Big Brown coming up short in the last sprit) and bizarre (see the post below).

But the best one yet arrived Thursday evening from Dean Brown, who cast a pivotal swing vote in favor of the budget. Brown recounted a contentious budget from the late 19th century, when Mount Airy commissioners were debating which of two mules to buy to haul the trash cart. The bigger mule cost $75 more and was a mean thing that snapped at everybody. But commissioners bit the bullet and purchased that animal because it could haul considerably more trash and would help in the long run.

“I guess today we bought the mean mule,” Brown said right after the budget vote.

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During a Mount Airy City Council budget meeting where commissioner Tom Bagnal quoted Bette Davis (“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”) and Commissioner Dean Brown quoted Larry the Cable Guy (“Let’s get r done”), by far the most entertaining quote to sum up the situation came via Commissioner Deborah Cochran. She opened the meeting with an anecdote about this recent encounter she had with an employee at McDonald’s.

“He saw me and said ‘heavy is the head that wears the crown.’ I asked if that was Shakespeare. ‘No,’ he said. ‘that’s Metallica.”

 

My google searching couldn’t find that particular quote from the heavy metal band. Cochran may have been getting mixed up with the Limp Bizkit song Re-arranged. But for the purposes of having a laugh at this dramatic budget season, here’s a few other quotes from Metallica hit songs that could apply to the process.

(on the acrimonious debates on whether to raise water rates) “This is cloud that swallows trust. This is the black that uncolors us.”

(on the relentless search for ways to reduce those rates) “They’re off to find the hero of the day. But what if they should fall by someone’s wicked way?”

(or on the risk of depleting savings or putting off projects to fix crumbling infrastructure) “Then it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel. Was just a freight train coming your way.”

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Navigating budgets and separating the “fat” from the “bone” is tough without the expertise of actually running a department. But there’s one optional expense everyone can weigh in on without knowing the inner workings of utility systems, patrol divisions, building permits, etc.

That would be pay raises, this year specifically, cost of living pay raises. They’re included for all employees in local government budgets … for now. The across the board raises look like they’ll stay in Dobson and Pilot Mountain’s budgets, while they’re targeted for elimination in Mount Airy and the county’s budgets.

Agreeing on even what constitutes a “cost of living” increase is hard enough (it’s 3 percent for Dobson and the county, 4 percent for Mount Airy and Pilot Mountain). Whether or not to fund them is an argument of both fairness — should government employees be punished for private industry layoffs, or do they owe the unemployed to have their paychecks slashed in real dollars? It’s also an argument of fiscal prudence — do governments save money by holding off on raises or will that just cause turnover that costs more in the long run through having to train new employees?

County officials meet tonight and Mount Airy officials meet tomorrow to crunch budgets. Expect this topic to get plenty of discussion.

UPDATE SINCE THIS WAS POSTED: COLA raises did get plenty of focus during budget talks, and both county and Mount Airy commissioners were in pretty much unanimous agreement to slash them from the budgets. Nothing’s final yet, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll be put back in.

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Gov. Mike Easley’s final budget proposal is out. His spending priorities (Easley staples such as teacher pay and higher education along with the hot button issues of mental health) are perhaps less interesting than the plan to help pay for it all through tax increases to cigarettes and alcohol. The cigarette tax hike can be considered really harsh, given that it nearly doubles the per pack tax of 35 cents, or viewed as fairly benign, given that North Carolina would still be in the lower half among all states in taxes per pack. Taxes to alcohol amount to 4 percent.

Tobacco was once a dominant economic force in this state, but it appears that its political and cultural influence has spiraled down significantly in recent years.

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