2 of 5 Hamlet council members don’t support budget

Draft budget: $4.98 million general fund, $2.59 million enterprise fund

By Kevin Spradlin

* Draft budget
* City Manager’s budget message

HAMLET — All Hamlet City Council members need is a majority of three to approve the proposed Fiscal Year 2016 budget.

That’s good, because at least two council members went on record Thursday during the governing body’s last public budget work session as opposing it. Councilman Tony Clewis said he opposes the 2.5 percent across-the-board salary increase for full-time employees. Council Pat Preslar agrees with Clewis, and said council members didn’t go far enough to pare down the projected fund balance appropriation.

Fifty-three percent of the city's proposed FY 2016 budget will go towards police and fire services.

Fifty-three percent of the city’s proposed FY 2016 budget will go towards police and fire services.

Mayor Bill Bayless scheduled a public hearing on the budget beginning at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 9 at the council’s next regularly monthly public meeting. The budget can be adopted any time after that public hearing and no later than June 30.

Clewis and Preslar both emphasized that they felt city workers had earned a raise, but that the city’s budget simply couldn’t absorb it. Both favored a one-time bonus.

“I felt like we could have don something different,” Clewis said. “I was in favor of a bonus, ’cause a raise keeps on giving. It never goes away. For that reason, I’m not going to vote for the budget.”

Preslar explained that the city hadn’t raised taxes or fees in more than a decade. At the time and for a few years, that created a budget surplus. As time passed, however, the cost of doing business increased, he said. Such is the budget process that goes in cycles.

“That’s my reason I can’t support the budget the way it’s presented,” Preslar said.

Preslar pointed the finger at council members, and not city staff, for failing to reach a consensus on additional cuts, additional fee increases or to propose a tax increase. One thing’s for sure, Preslar said: “You can’t balance (a budget) on a wing and a prayer.”

Preslar referred specifically to this year’s budget that shows a $821,720 appropriation from the fund balance, also known as the city’s rainy day fund. City officials can’t say now exactly how much of that appropriation will be needed, but the figure is estimated to be nearly $500,000 — all for routine operational expenses. The fund balance appropriation in the 2015-16 proposed budget is $485,660.

City Manager Marcus Abernethy noted the 41 percent decrease in budgeted fund balance appropriations from this year to next — no small task, city officials agreed. City officials said that even if all $821,720 would be needed, that drops the city’s fund balance down to approximately 28 percent, well over the minimum 8 percent recommended by the North Carolina Local Government Commission.

The budget cycle, Preslar said, has caught up with itself.

“Actually, last year was probably the time to start looking for additional revenue sources,” he said. “There’s the issue with us borrowing from the fund balance, and every year we give raises” and insurance rates increase.

Like Clewis, Preslar said he favored a one-time bonus to city staff in order to “stop the bleeding … so we could regroup. I just see this problem getting worse. I think we could have done better.”

Councilmen Eddie Martin and Jesse McQueen, however, had different views of the proposed budget, the first by City Manager Marcus Abernethy. Councilman Johnathan Buie did not attend Thursday’s budget work session.

“I think it’s too much gloom-and-doom (talk) about this budget,” Martin said. “I think it’s a good budget.”

Martin said the council could deal with any future expenditures or revenue shortages “as they appear next year.”

“It’s not the end of the world,” Martin said. “I’m in favor of the budget.”

McQueen said not only is the draft budget a good one, but this year’s budget process has positioned the city well in future budget discussions. He said the vote to consolidate police dispatching could save up to $125,000 in future years — a project at least two years out, until the new 911 center is constructed and equipped — and the decision to eliminate two previously grant-funded positions with the police department. The grants had expired.

Further still, McQueen noted council members had reclassified a Hamlet Police Department captain to a detective/sergeant position, a savings of “several thousand dollars.” In addition to that, the city is looking at its cost of fire service to the town of Dobbins Heights — the town pays the city of Hamlet $24,000, but servicing the town costs Hamlet nearly three times that amount — and reducing a full-time assistant position with the Parks and Recreation Department to a part-time job.

“I think this council has done a lot to try and prepare for the future,” McQueen said. “These are actual, concrete steps. If everything stays somewhat in the line … it’s gonna cut that fund balance appropriation that we would need for next year. I think that’s being good stewards of (taxpayer) money.”

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