Hamlet budget goes ‘back to the drawing board’

Garbage, Fire, Parks & Rec fees could increase; Library, Police K9 scrutinized 

By Kevin Spradlin

* Draft budget

HAMLET — Early on, there was talk about Hamlet City Council members being able to adopt the Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget as soon as the May 12 public meeting.

That idea, though, was blown out of the water. More than 100 minutes into a lengthy budget work session, city staff and elected officials took turns threatening to call the SBI on each other, one councilman questioned another’s manhood and it was suggested — decidedly in a joking manner — that the city’s budget could be balanced by eliminating the Hamlet Police Department.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Hamlet City Council members Pat Preslar, left, and Jesse McQueen exchanged words during Thursday's budget work session.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Hamlet City Council members Pat Preslar, left, and Jesse McQueen exchanged words during Thursday’s budget work session.

It was that kind of finger-pointing night on Thursday at City Hall. After three hours and 31 minutes of discussion, council members made the decision to recess the meeting until 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 6. At that meeting, City Manager Marcus Abernethy is expected to present to City Council a proposal to increase Parks and Recreation program registration fees, garbage collection fees and fire service fees.

Some could justify a garbage fee increase; the last was in 1997.

Mayor Bill Bayless called the meeting to order at 5:35 p.m. At about 7:12 p.m., council members followed the suggestion of Councilman Pat Preslar, who requested they go through the budget line by line to see what could be cut.

At issue was the $868,320 appropriated from the city’s fund balance, or rainy day fund, for the current fiscal year. In years past, the city has appropriated money from the fund but often not spent much of that appropriation — and in certain years, officials have even been able to add to the fund balance with a budget surplus.

Abernethy said he doesn’t expect that to be the case this time.

“We’ll be in the neighborhood of several hundred thousand dollars and probably closer to 868 (thousand dollars) than zero,” Abernethy cautioned.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Hamlet City Manager Marcus Abernethy said it's "back to the drawing board" to approve the Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Hamlet City Manager Marcus Abernethy said it’s “back to the drawing board” to approve the Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget.

It was an analysis Jill Dickens, city finance officer, couldn’t agree with, “but yes, I’m worried. I’m real worried. In a couple more years …”

Dickens said it was too soon to tell exactly how much of the fund balance appropriation would be needed. The problem, Dickens said, is that $572,000 of the fund balance appropriation was for the city’s operating expenses — generally agreed upon as a bad way of doing business. Given the status quo, however, Dickens said the city faces that minimum fund balance appropriation next year, too.

“If we don’t cut services or raise something … ” Dickens said.

If most or all of the appropriated fund balance is used, it could take the city’s fund balance dangerously close to 30 percent — which, Bayless noted, is the level at which state-level experts “start coming to look at us, see what’s going on, make recommendations” to change direction.

“If we did away with the police department,” Bayless quipped, “we could save 30 percent of our budget.”

Police Chief Scott Waters laughed it off but requested a severance package if such a proposal was approved.

Much of the line-item scrutiny passed through the council’s eyes without change. The fire department, the sanitation department, the police department. But when it came to the latter, Councilman Tony Clewis had an idea for future savings.

“When these canines age out, I don’t think we need to replace ’em,” Clewis said.

Clewis then recalled the time his auto repair shop was broken into early one morning. He called the Hamlet Police Department at about 4:30 a.m. Clewis, he said, was told to stay in his vehicle so the police K9 could try and pick up a scent. But the Hamlet Police Department, with two K9 units, weren’t called.

“The county was already up and out,” Clewis said of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office, “which I can kind of understand. But if we can use the county, then we need to use them. Good, bad indifferent. I know one of our dogs is getting old.”

Said Clewis: “I asked, ‘where’s our K9 at?’ ‘Oh, he’s asleep.'”

* * * 

At about 9 p.m., council members and staff were tiring. They looked at what they’d accomplished over the previous two hours. Going through the $5.1 million draft budget, as Preslar suggested, staff and council members had:

* Cut $5,000 from the administration’s miscellaneous expenses
* Cut $3,000 from the Hamlet Depot and Museum’s professional services
* Cut $2,002 from the museum manager’s salary
* Cut $20,000 in capital outlay that was to purchase a new van for maintenance
* Decided against a $500 allocation to the Senior Games of Richmond County
* Decided against a $250 allocation to the Richmond County Aging Services

For all the talk, the council cut a net $29,252 — less than 5 percent of the city’s fund balance appropriation.

Efforts to cut $500 from the annual allocations to Richmond County Crime Stoppers (to $1,000 from $1,500) and New Horizons (to $1,000 from $1,500) were unsuccessful.

* * * 

In 2011-12, the city spent more than $256,000 from the fund balance. But Preslar said the city has tangible results — the Field of Dreams complex, plus $18,000 for concession stands, and more for a walking trail and police cruisers.

“We called it a stimulus at the time,” Preslar said, adding that the fund balance was still at 41 percent after the expenditures.

McQueen said, then, that the data “shows a pattern of actually using the fund balance to do things in the city. It’s not something that’s just a phenomenon that’s been going on over just the past 12 months.”

Preslar’s been on the council for nearly 16 years. McQueen was elected back to the board in November 2013.

Preslar and McQueen seemed to agree on certain things — but not what to do, or how. Drawing so much from the fund balance this year “scares me,” Preslar said.

“We haven’t done a whole lot this year,” he said, acknowledging one payment for a fire truck. “That’s it.”

Vocally, at least, Preslar was in the minority.

“I can’t think of anything we did that was not needed,” Councilman Johnathan Buie said.

Said Preslar: “There’s something going on there for a $600,000 appropriation. It just scares me in the upcoming years where we’re gonna be.”

As an elected official, Preslar has no concerns. His term expires in November and he’s already indicated he will not seek re-election. But he is a city resident.

“We’re going to have an alarming increase in taxes,” Preslar noted — or, Bayless said, a cut in services.

“I’m not trying to be a bad guy here,” Preslar said. “We have got to skim this thing now … you ain’t seen nothin’ until you raise taxes.”

During a rather tense back-and-forth, Preslar addressed the council:

“You guys ain’t got a clue about a budget,” he directed towards McQueen, who holds a master’s in public administration and is a small business owner.

* * * 

For the second straight year, Bayless questioned the city’s $55,000 allotment to the Sandhills Regional Library System.

Preslar said other municipalities outside of Richmond County don’t pay anything close to Hamlet’s contribution to the system.

“They pay … they just don’t pay nothing like we do,” he said.

Preslar said the city’s allocation has decreased over the years; it used to be $73,000. He also said the last time the city tried to decrease the amount, “we about got our ears box in by the Friends of the Library.”

There’s not much wiggle room for anyone to put their stamp on this year’s budget, but Abernethy — hired in October 2014 and going through his first budget cycle in his new job — is doing his best to convince council members that his $5,000 idea for a facade grant program is worth keeping.

Abernethy aims to provide the incentive to commercial property owners to spruce up their Main Street business fronts. The city would reimburse a property owner 25 percent of the cost of a facade overhaul up to a cap of $5,000.

It’s an idea that has worked in nearby municipalities such as Rockingham and Cheraw, S.C.

“It might be a flop,” Abernethy said. “It might be a complete flop.”

But no one will know if they don’t try. Besides, it could be a hit.

So far, council members have maintained a 2.5-percent across-the-board raise for full-time employees that comes at a price tag of about $78,000. The concern is that without a raise, more workers will look elsewhere for employment.

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