FY 2016-17 Budget, Adjustments from last week’s post

13 Jun FY 2016-17 Budget, Adjustments from last week’s post

Beaufort City Council will hold a public hearing followed by the first reading of the 2016-17 Budget. Tuesday, 7 PM at City Hall.

City Council has an annual two day planning retreat every year. City Council makes many policy decisions at our twice a month meetings, but the fiscal year budget is where priorities are set and the rubber hits the road.

If one wants to understand the direction your city will be taking over the next fiscal year, the budget is the best place to find out.

In reviewing the city budget, which is on the city website, note that some of the city’s expenses do not fall within the general fund. Revenues from grants and other sources for capital improvements and land acquisition are in accounts restricted to specific projects. The Boundary Street Redevelopment, for example, has its own budget because the funds came from the Beaufort County Capital Projects Sales Tax fund, a large Federal Highway Administration grant and dollars generated and set aside from a tax incremental tax district.

What to look for? Other than a long overdue increase in the number of police officers on the streets and patiently awaited equipment for our fire fighters, both of which we postponed in past years, the seemingly largest pending issue is whether the city should continue to maintain state owned (and neglected) road rights of way, storm water drainage systems and road and sidewalk repairs. The cost is about $700,000 and spending it means other needs are no fulfilled.

Since we started taking over this burden in recent years, residents and visitors have noted that our city is very well kempt and even more beautiful with trimmed road rights of way, reduced flooding and safer sidewalks.

But, to continue this work, we may very well have to create a fee similar to the county’s road fee. I have studied the fee, and I see two downsides: The first of course is an additional fee; the second is that if we continue to maintain state assets, the state will never take back the responsibility and we will have to bear this burden into the future.

While state law distinguishes between a “fee restricted for a specific purpose” it is found on one’s property tax bill and feels like a tax.

In last week’s newsletter I laid out severe restrictions by state government not the least of which is not funding that promised aid to local governments, the artificial ceiling on local taxes and continued unfunded mandates cast upon all local governments.

Nevertheless, some Council members believe we can further trim the budget from which staff has already cut $1 million from departmental requests. They also believe that revenues will rise more than expected because the economy has partially recovered. I hope they are correct and if they are able to “find the dollars through cuts or new revenues,” I will stand behind their efforts.

On the other hand, if we are not able to make additional cuts, without jeopardizing public safety, we will have to make a tough decision requiring a fee the next two years. (The fee will have a sunset clause ending it after two years if not deliberately extended.)

If one reviews the minutes from the past three budget cycles, one will see that a similar fee has been proposed by staff, but rejected by council sometimes at the expense of other city needs. My question is how long can we kick the can down of those needs, particularly public safety down the road. We have not increased police presence in the eight years I have served as Mayor and we have underfunded requests for equipment for our firefighters during the same period. Will it be this year or next that we do what we will eventually have to do?

While a few adjustments have been made since the FY 2016-17 budget was presented by the City Manager and Finance Director, the following link will give you an opportunity to review the proposed budget. The most significant change is the proposed $60 per real property unit fee has been adjusted to a $35 per car fee because legal counsel said the per unit fee on real property could be contested in court while there is precedent for the automobile fee.

Also note that revenues for the fee will not cover additional police and fire staff and equipment. Funds will be committed to maintain state assets, contracts and equipment to do so.

And if you would like to review quarterly budget reports, go here.

And finally if you would like to review city revenues and expenses almost in real time go here.

If there is one thing we have achieved in recent years, it is budget transparency. Look at the budget, ask questions and make constructive suggestions if you have them.

There will be an opportunity for you to be heard during the public hearing, and, if you have further questions after council discusses the budget and considers first reading, you will have an opportunity to be heard again before a vote is taken.