The $234,891,890 proposed fiscal year 2017-18 budget does not have a rise in property taxes, and includes a 4 percent rate decrease for electric customers along with slight increases in the base fees charged monthly for other utilities as well as a recommendation to increase $5 parking tickets to $15 and $10 tickets to $20. Other highlights of the budget include recommendations for four new police officers, the first of three phases to buy secondary sets of protective gear for firefighters and start work on the greenway along Hominy Creek.
By Brie Handgraaf
Times Staff Writer
Wilson City Manager Grant Goings presented the $234,891,890 budget proposal Thursday, which includes a recommendation to keep the property tax rate at 55.5 cents per $100 valuation and a 4 percent decrease in electric rates.
Following the sale of N.C. Eastern Municipal Power Agency generating assets to Duke Energy, Wilson passed an 18 percent rate reduction that reportedly has saved Wilson Energy customers more than $26 million since September 2015. If approved, a 4 percent rate reduction would go into affect July 1 thanks to a reduction in the wholesale rate.
“With these wholesale rate decreases, the city has been able to adopt a rate structure that provides savings to its customers and builds reserves that will support ongoing capital needs to keep our system viable,” Goings said in his budget letter to the council.
The proposal for fiscal year 2017-18 does include several recommended increases to the base fees for other utilities. Goings explained how an average of 48.1 degrees in December, January and February meant lower gas sales — a good thing for customers, but an issue for the city.
“Our natural gas sales vary greatly depending on weather; however, many of our costs are fixed,” Goings said in his letter. “Therefore, it is prudent for us to recover more revenue from our fixed base rate, providing a predictable and dependable revenue base regardless of weather conditions.”
Goings recommended a monthly increase of $4 on the natural gas base rate, a 73-cent increase to the water base rate and an increase of 36 cents on the sewer base rate. A 40-cent per month increase on the stormwater fee also was recommended to cover recommendations made in 2016 by a citizen-led Stormwater Committee. One of the most critical stormwater projects is addressing the impairment of Hominy Creek and $90,000 in the proposed capital improvement plan is recommended to cover planning and engineering costs associated with the initial $840,000 project that will include a greenway.
Four out of five of the new employees Goings recommended adding to the payroll are police officers, which he said will help cover increased call volume while retaining the department’s commitment to community outreach. He cited a steady climb in the department’s community service hours in recent years, including more than 17,000 hours in 2016.
“A lot of cities in North Carolina and in our peer group are asking a lot of questions about Wilson’s crime rate going down consistently and dramatically,” Goings said. “I think we would be remiss if we didn’t connect that to officers giving time to the community. While I can’t prove a direct correlation, the statistics speak for themselves and I can see that we need to keep doing what we’re doing.”
Officials said the city’s crime rate in 2016 reflected a 5.2 percent decrease from 2015, which resulted in a nearly 14 percent decrease in crime since 2010.
“I believe investing in the department is paying dividends,” Goings said. “We never want to get on the back side of crime stats because it is very, very difficult to recover when statistics are going in the opposite direction.”
The proposed budget for the police department is $13,794,920, including nearly $578,000 in capital expenses related to vehicles and technology as well as $150,000 earmarked for an evidence storage building because of space limitations in the current facility. The capital improvement plan also has $9.2 million on the books between fiscal years 2019 to 2022 for a possible police headquarters expansion, but officials said it is unclear if the project will be necessary.
The total proposed budget for the fire department is nearly $8.5 million, which is about $1.4 million less than the estimated 2016-17 budget yet includes a $60,000 allocation for the first of three phases to purchase a second set of turnout gear for firefighters. Fire Chief Don Oliver said the equipment is necessary to allow crews to properly decontaminate gear following fires and reduce the health risks faced by personnel.
Visitors to historic downtown Wilson can expect an increased cost for parking tickets if the budget proposal is approved as recommended. A 2015 downtown development parking study reported that the $5 ticket was not enough of a deterrent to get drivers to park in lots for long-term visits. As such, Goings recommended increasing the $5 ticket to $15 and the $10 ticket to $20.
“This is not a significant revenue item for the city and these fees are not being recommended primarily as a revenue source,” he said Thursday. “It is a parking enforcement tool more than anything else.”
The proposal includes a 3 percent rise in building permits to support increasing operating and capital costs with technology. The approval of a license registration fee passed last year reportedly led to an additional seven miles above the yearly average for street resurfacing.
“Seven miles may not sound like a lot, but you do that for several years in a row and it really starts to make an impact,” he said.
The council recently received the Parks and Recreation Master Plan, but the recommended projects are largely deferred to the capital budget for fiscal year 2018-19. Those projects include renovations to Flemming Stadium, renovations at Cavalier Terrace and a dog park at Toisnot Park as well as various improvements to courts and parking lots. Goings said in his budget letter the council might need to consider a bond referendum for the various projects.
“We have funded over $12 million of capital requests,” Goings said. “There were requests totaling $19 million, but I believe all departments would tell you their priorities were funded.”
Goings went on to highlight that the proposed budget is a 1.9 percent decrease from the current budget, noting the role the city’s workforce of 747 employees. There is a $341,330 increase in employee health insurance expenses in the proposal, but Goings said the increase was originally estimated at 10 percent and negotiations brought it to 3 percent.
“Our year-to-date performance for the current fiscal year is tracking in a very positive fashion,” Goings said. “I’m proud of our department heads and employees and I believe we’ll finish this year strong. I have the full intention to come to you after the audit is presented to suggest employee raises.
“That was a practice we began at the recession and it has proven to not only work, but is also fair to our employees.”
The council will take a closer look at the budget at the 8:30 a.m. meeting on June 1. The public hearing on the budget is set for June 15 with approval required before July 1.
Also at the 7 p.m. Thursday City Council meeting, officials approved the voluntary annexation request of 3006 Eliza Place and the zoning change to residential mixed-use for 1211 Tarboro St. SW. Other action taken at the meeting included a grant and occupancy agreement for the Oliver Nestus Roundhouse Museum as well as an application for a Neighborhood Choice Program Grant.
During the presentation portion of the meeting, Wilson Energy received the Reliable Public Power Provider Diamond Award, May 21 through 27 was declared National Public Works Week and a partnership was announced to increase fire safety in the city.
Director of Water Resources Barry Parks also took a few minutes at the end of the meeting to address flooding brought by Hurricane Matthew in October and by a stalled thunderstorm in April. He said October and April are habitually drier months for Wilson, noting both storms brought record rainfall unmatched in decades with the exception of Hurricane Floyd in 1999.
“This is Mother Nature at its worst in that regard,” Parks said.
Buckhorn Reservoir is not designed for flood control, noting the acquisition of much more land would be required if an effort was made to shift the purpose of the reservoir.
“This is not a typical event for this area nor should it be expected, unless weather has changed significantly,” he said. “... We could go another six months or 30 or 40 years before the next storm like this. It is just unpredictable.”