Tax-increasing budget approved

kjahner@newsobserver.comJune 20, 2014 

— Despite unanimous council approval of the budget, councilman Buck Kennedy continued to go along grudgingly, and vowed to advocate for changes to the process for next year after spearheading a slog through an unusually detailed and drawn out budget season.

Garner’s town council approved the $26.6 million budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year that will include a one-cent tax increase to fund emergency services, one it hopes can be temporary.

Taxes will still rise again next year. But after the current 49 cents per $100 in valuation rises to 50 cents this year, the council intends to limit the increase to 51.75 cents in 2015-16. That figure jives with the 2.75 cent total increase voters tacitly approved in 2015 by a wide margin in the $35.7 million bond referendum in March of 2013.

The increase, according to staff, was needed to address the rising costs associated with emergency services, particularly a Garner Fire budget that officials agree is short-stacked. The hope of council is that enough revenue growth will materialize in coming years that this year’s penny won’t be needed next year.

“This was the longest series of deliberations we’ve had since I’ve been on the council, and I believe the most thorough,” councilwoman Kathy Behringer said. “I am pleased with the outcome.”

The tax increase – initially proposed by staff as a permanent bump to be added to the bond tax in future years – had drawn consistent opposition from Kennedy. He said he voted for the budget because it had more that he liked than what he didn’t like, but he also again stressed that the town funded 3-percent merit-based raises, allowing spending on personnel to grow faster than town revenues. He said next year the town council should help decide the amount of merit raises before the budget proposal is finalized and presented.

“This is a policy decision that should be made by council. Made by council,” he said.

Each fiscal year starts July 1. Each penny on the property tax translates to about $17.80 on the average Garner home, which is valued around $178,000. Garner’s effective tax rate on an average home owner is one of the lowest in Wake County once water and sewer costs are factored in, despite a higher property tax rate.

‘Vetted thoroughly’

“I believe this is a good, reasonable and fiscally responsible budget. I appreciate the time and energy of the budget team,” said councilman Ken Marhsburn, who has supported staff’s requests and rationale throughout. “I believe this budget has been vetted thoroughly by the council.”

The budget nominally grew this year, but revenue projections were essentially flat from those estimated for this year.

The growth from last year’s budget came mainly from money taken, as planned, out of the fund balance to pay off bond debt. It falls under the revenue side of the revenue-spending balancing scale for accounting purposes but came from money the town already had in the bank before the start of the year.

Among the goals of the budget, in a budget statement from staff, is replacing a backlog of about $8 million in equipment over the next several years. That includes a recession-created backlog of past-due replacements. It also mentions a pay-for-performance philosophy for employees as well as a goal to preserve the unassigned fund balance.

The fund balance is projected to stand at $14.7 million at the end of the year. About $6.3 million of that is slated to help with bond payments, leaving about $8.3 million, or about 31 percent of the budget that can be spent for any purpose. Policy dictates an unassigned reserve of at least 30 percent of a year’s operating costs.

The largest single chunk of the operating budget, as usual, goes to police which, at $7.2 million, represents about 27 percent of the budget. That’s just under a 1 percent increase from the previous year.

Public Works saw a 12.6 percent increase, the largest departmental rise, to $6.6 million. Much of that comes from town growth including an increase in the mileage of roads and town-maintained facilities, as well as a few months of operations in the new police station to be completed next year.

The fire budget remains on the low end for what most towns pay in terms of budget percentage and on a per-population or per-call basis. Town funding rose from $2.25 million to $2.39 million.

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