City budget passes, with some dissent


First Posted: 6/18/2009

Normally, a bare-bones budget that cuts property taxes and doesnt increase utility rates makes people happy, but one Mount Airy official believes the citys budget approved Thursday night shortchanges municipal employees.
The spending plan for the upcoming 2009-10 fiscal year was approved 4-1 by the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners, with the majority of the members saying they thought it was a wise budget that reflects tight times being experienced by citizens.
However, Commissioner David Beal who cast the lone dissenting vote said he objected to how that conservative-minded package was achieved.
I think its unfortunate that for the second-straight year, the budget is balanced on the backs of city employees, Beal said in reference to its provisions or lack of them for the municipalitys 180 workers.
For the second-straight year, those workers will get no general cost-of-living raise. And while this years budget contained city contributions to employee 401(k) plans across the board, that provision was removed for all personnel except police officers for the 2009-10 budget, which goes into effect on July 1.
Beal said dropping the 401(k) contribution will reduce the compensation package to affected municipal workers by 5 percent.
The South Ward representative also questioned the proposed slashing of property taxes by a penny in the budget from 59 to 58 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. Earlier this spring, commissioners toyed with the idea of not cutting taxes and setting aside the extra funding for a rainy day, but ultimately decided to retain that reduction.
Beal said he was glad to see citizens benefit as a result, pointing out that he agreed with the property tax rate also being cut the previous year to account for the effects of a real estate revaluation. But, he added, Is it a sound decision this year?
He said that saving the revenues represented by that penny on the tax rate could mean a great deal if a shortfall occurs during the fiscal year. Beal said he wasnt trying to have last-minute budget changes made or to offend anyone, but that he wanted to state his viewpoint on the budget which later was solidified with his No vote.
After Beal spoke, the other four commissioners said they were pleased with the spending plan.
I appreciate Mr. Beals thoughts, Commissioner Jon Cawley said.
But Cawley added that when he first examined the budget and its effects on personnel, he made inquiries about how city workers were taking the lack of raises and other considerations. The councilman said he learned that they were thankful for simply having jobs.
He said that response made him feel good about those employees. It was reassuring to know that the people who work for us care about what the citizens are going through.
As for not making the tax cut which will amount to a savings of only about $12 to the typical taxpayer Cawley thinks it boils down to a philosophical issue. Citizens know how to spend any of their money better than the government does, he said.
Cawley also referred to recent actions in Washington which he believes are an attempt to control every facet of citizens lives. I just dont want to see this happen on a local level, the board member said.
Commissioner Deborah Cochran also applauded the budgets provisions. There are no perfect budgets, Cochran said. This one does take into account the plight of our citizens during this great recession. In 2008, she had voted against the budget for the present year because it hiked water rates by 7 percent.
Dean Brown, another commissioner, said that everyone would like to have their pet projects included in a budget. But this is a difficult time, he acknowledged. We just need to survive and provide decent services for our citizens.
Brown added that Mount Airy should search the world for economic development, to provide more leeway to reduce utility rates and better meet the citys financial needs.

Budget Highlights
The 58-cent tax rate is expected to generate $5.9 million toward the overall general fund budget of $11.6 million, about 14 percent less than what is being spent this year. The citys separate water-sewer budget amounts to slightly more than $6 million, about a 7-percent jump from 2008-09.
In addition to the one-cent drop in property taxes, the new budget includes a two-cent reduction in an additional tax that property owners in the downtown Municipal Service District pay for extra amenities provided there.
City Manager Don Brookshire has described the new budget as one designed to get local government and citizens through a tough year by temporarily freezing various items that normally would be funded. This includes the financial implications for city workers, with the budget also funding five fewer positions than this year.
Brookshire has called the impacts on personnel a short-term approach to addressing tight financial times that cannot become a regular part of balancing the budget. In addition to a general cost-of-living increase, no merit raises are included.
The delaying of major equipment purchases and projects is another factor in keeping budget expenditures down. Proposed capital outlay funding, for needs of more than $10,000, is limited to $595,804 for the next fiscal year, compared to about $728,740 approved for 2008-09.
The $595,804 will cover such items as new vehicles for the police department, a new truck for the sanitation division and debt service for an upgrade of the citys communications systems.
Special appropriations to outside agencies including the Mount Airy Rescue Squad, Surry Arts Council, city library and Mount Airy Museum of Regional History also have been left intact.
Contact Tom Joyce at [email protected] or at 719-1924.

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