The Swansboro Board of Commissioners Tuesday will hold a public hearing on the new town budget for the coming year. We’ll likely pass it, though I won’t vote for it.
There are some things to commend in the proposed $4.3 million budget: It provides residents with the same level of services without raising taxes. It also puts aside about $54,500 in a capital reserve fund as a down payment for large future expenses, such as $1 million in new fire trucks that we’ll need in the next decade. Add the $43,000 that we’ll put in that account after selling our old fire truck and we have a nice nest egg for future purchases of fire apparatus.
But there are many other things in this budget that I can’t support. To come up with that down payment and another $50,000 for sidewalks without raising taxes, the board revised the budget proposed by the town manager, redirecting thousands of dollars from a host of items that the manager had proposed.
Our finance director told us she needs fulltime help to do her job more efficiently. She works long hours and is hard-pressed to meet the demands of the job while fulfilling state and federal reporting requirements. Burn out is a real concern. She also needs modern financial software.
The commissioners, though, decided not to set aside money for the software package and opted to provide her with part-time assistance. That made another $25,000 available for sidewalks and firetrucks.
The commissioners think they’ve found another $17,000 by cutting what we now pay for our town attorney by almost 47 percent. We currently contract with Ward and Smith of New Bern for our legal services. Their lawyer is on retainer. He attends two board meetings every month and is available for unlimited consultations. I don’t think anyone on the board would disagree that Ward and Smith has provided us with excellent legal advice. The commissioners, though, have set aside about $19,000 in their budget for a piecemeal legal plan that would provide some basic level of service. We would pay for anything else at an hourly rate.
We’re still shopping that contract around with law firms in the area. No one, at the moment, is really sure what we’ll get for our money. I’ll go out on a limb and predict we that won’t get the same level of service for half the price.
Eliminating the fulltime finance position, deleting money to set aside for the financial software and the bare-bones legal plan provide most of $100,000 for sidewalks and fire trucks. The rest comes from a bunch of nickel-and-dime cuts: about $10,000 from various travel and training budgets; $5,000 from the fire department’s overtime budget; and eliminating a part-time position requested by the Parks and Recreation Dept.
The philosophy behind this budget is puzzling. Paying for extraordinary capital expenses like fire trucks and sidewalks through a small, annual operating budget like ours without raising taxes is very difficult. There’s just not a lot of money to spare. You end up making hard and, in my view, unnecessary choices, as this budget does. It chooses sidewalks and future fire trucks over providing needed help for our dedicated, hardworking staff and paying for competent, professional services. Those aren’t choices I’m willing to make.
Neither am I willing to part with most towns and cities in the state by charging our employees for health care. This budget takes the first step in ending that important benefit. We chose a better health insurance plan than employees have now, but it will cost about $60 more a month per employee. The 24 employees on the plan will be required to make up that difference. We’ll boost their salaries by that amount for one year but with no guarantee that the subsidy will continue.
Those on the board who favor this approach have noted that hardly anyone in the private sector – “the real world,” they like to call it – gets free health care these days. While there’s no disputing that, it’s equally true that in this world of local government, free health care is an industry standard. Most public employees could make more money working in that “real world.” Health and retirement benefits attempt to level the playing field.
In our previous discussions about the budget, the town manager provided us with a survey he conducted of health-care plans and costs in eight nearby cities and counties: Newport, Pine Knoll Shores, Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle, River Bend, Snow Hill, Oriental and Onslow County. Swansboro’s current health-care plan costs us $520 a month per employee. That was the third-lowest on the list. Importantly, only Onslow County charges employees $25 a month if they opted for the more expensive of the two plans offered.
The commissioners’ new approach of requiring employees to pay a portion of their health insurance isn’t common in North Carolina. If we were in that “real world,” one could say we are at a competitive disadvantage. Recruiting new employees and retaining the ones we have could now be difficult.
And, finally, I’m very troubled by the process we used to get to Tuesday night’s vote. We have talked publicly about this budget for months, holding six or seven public meetings and workshops. The town manager, at the board’s request, devised two budgets: one with a tax increase and one without.
A couple of board members got their pencils out over a weekend in early May and began cutting money from one line item of the manager’s budgets and moving it to another.
The commissioners’ alternative budget, as it has been called, was first made public at our meeting on May 8. Mayor John Davis called me that morning informing me of the alternate budget. He had contacted the other commissioners as well. It was clear from the conversation that all had approved the numbers. I told Davis that I could not.
He visited our town manager, who had worked for months on the budget with his staff, later that day and briefed him extensively on the commissioners’ desires.
At the meeting that night, the board discussed the new numbers and directed the manager to use them to fashion the budget that will be the subject of Tuesday’s meeting.
I wonder why we wasted all that time for all those months publicly talking about a budget. Who knew that it could be quickly resolved by a couple of folks with a pencil over a weekend, followed by a few phone calls and emails? Live and learn.
The meeting Tuesday starts at 6 p.m. at Town Hall.
You can review the proposed budget here.