Spradlin: Hamlet budget remains unbalanced

Council continues to kick the can

As a group, the Hamlet City Council agreed at its recent budget work session to leave the property tax rate alone, leave garbage fees alone, leave fire department fees alone and keep the proposed 2.5 percent pay increase for full-time employees in its fiscal year 2015-16 budget.

Council members did agree on Wednesday to increase certain Parks and Recreation Department program fees — $10 per athlete for baseball and tackle football, $5 for other sports except cheerleading. However, the estimated $7,500 in revenue that increase generates doesn’t equally counter roughly $17,000 hole created by eliminating admission fees.

budgetAs of April 30, the city’s fund balance appropriation from this year’s budget — which runs through June 30 — is $868,320. Exactly how much of that appropriation will actually be needed remains unknown, and won’t be known perhaps until August or so once all the bills come in. But Jill Dickens, city finance officer, said approximately $572,000 of that $868,320 is for the city’s operating expenses.

In the FY 2015-16 budget, the expected fund balance appropriation is $486,000 to cover the city’s routine operating expenses. That’s a problem. That means the city is planning on an annual basis to spend more than it takes in by well over half a million dollars this year and near that mark next year. That’s not the way to run a business and it’s no way to manage taxpayer dollars.

Something has to give. A one-cent property tax increase would generate approximately $25,000; a 23-cent hike, then, would cover (almost) all of the $572,000 needed to balance the city’s budget without cutting services, effecting personnel or raising any other program fees.

Of course, no one on the City Council — or in city government, for that matter, and certainly not anyone living in city limits — is advocating for a 23-cent hike in property taxes. The problem is no one’s advocating much of any type of change anywhere.

Somewhere along the line, city leaders became accustomed to appropriating from the city’s fund balance and hoped that, by year’s end, most of it would not be needed. That wasn’t the case last year and it certainly won’t be the case this year.

And the need for spending doesn’t appear to be slowing, but only pushed down the road. A $20,000 van was cut from the FY 2015-16 budget, for now, with hopes that there’s money for it in November. Same goes for a sound system at City Hall, and maybe a lawn mower for the Parks and Recreation Department.

That’s not to say any of these items aren’t needed, but if one looks at a budget and concludes everything is needed but there’s not enough money to buy it all, changes have to be made. That’s the juncture at which the city finds itself, but no one is saying so. The city is at a crossroads — cut services, raise fees or rates or reduce the number of personnel or hours worked.

In two ways, there was an effort to address personnel costs on Wednesday. First, it was decided that Zachary Garner, the city’s IT specialist, will resume his temporary role as Hamlet Depot and Museums manager as well once Chuck McShane departs this week. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus as to who, if anyone, will fill in as downtown coordinator, which is a role McShane was to fill. Second, it was decided that two of the three positions within the Hamlet Police Department that originally were paid for through grants and now are funded by the city — which are now vacant — won’t be filled.

“If we don’t cut services or raise something … ” Jill Dickens, city finance director, said on April 30.

Her suggestion tailed off at the end, and that’s unfortunate. She should have spoken louder. Someone needs to.

Kevin Spradlin is managing editor of The Pee Dee Post. Write to him at peedeepost@gmail.com.

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