A sizeable crowd of residents who had been following the controversial town budget process turned out for the meeting. It was delayed for 30 minutes while the latest version of the town budget reflecting last minute changes was printed out. Once the meeting finally started, the board spent only seven minutes addressing changes to the budget before approving it 4-to-1. The town had already held its required public hearing on June 12 and did not open Monday’s workshop for public comment on the new budget despite the changes.
“This is a difficult process, and difficult decisions have to be made,” prefaced Mayor Ron DeSimone before announcing that the town would cut its tax rate and slightly decrease employee benefits. “It’s taken quite a lot of time and a lot of interaction to get here.”
Alderwoman Saralyn Price immediately sounded off, inquiring why she was not given a copy of the new budget until just moments before the meeting started.
“I just got this, and I have not been talked to all week,” said Price, who voted against the budget. “I don’t appreciate it.”
Price said she disagreed with cutting the tax rate, a $120,000 decline in revenue, because it puts future town leaders in a sticky position.
“The people who come after you are going to have to raise taxes in order to survive,” she said.
Upon questioning, the town’s finance officer told aldermen that she did not personally support the budget cuts.
Fellow Alderman Mike Matthews told Price she was not consulted because the rest of the board already knew where she stood.
“You have had no answer or constructive criticism other than ‘no,’” Matthews said.
DeSimone echoed that Price is not flexible or willing to work with other members of the board.
“To be involved in the conversation, you have to bring something to the table,” DeSimone said. “I’ve tried to work with everyone on this. My phone works both ways, too.”
After the meeting, DeSimone indicated that during the weekend he spoke with all the aldermen about the budget, with the exception of Price.
At least one resident felt the mayor was in the wrong and should have called Price even if he knew what she would say.
“As a mayor, you should call all your people,” said Shirley Pinto. “That is not right as a mayor.”
Price has often found herself the lone voice out on the board after an upset election last year. The election brought in new leadership and a new majority.
Matthews said the town’s budget was “overinflated” and could stand to be cut. Maggie Valley resident and contractor Jay Ring agreed with the board’s trimming of the budget.
“It had to be done,” Ring said. “It’s long overdue.”
The three cents cut from the tax rate — for a total of $120,000 in savings — will be covered in part by cutting raises and benefits for town employees.
The town will no longer pick up 100 percent of health insurance costs for employees’ family members.
Spouses and dependents will pay for 10 percent of their health insurance plan costs, a savings of about $11,000 for the town.
Price opposed the cut, saying that it is part of the draw of working in Maggie Valley since its salary rates are low. The town currently employs 23 people.
“You are going to hurt the small employees — the employees that don’t make that much money,” Price said.
The approved budget omits any pay raises, whereas the original budget called for two percent cost-of-living raises.
“How many people in Haywood County got a raise this year?” DeSimone said.
While perhaps true in the private sector, among government entities, the county will offer two percent merit raises next fiscal year. Waynesville will be giving its workers a three percent cost-of-living raise.
Other savings come from delaying the purchase of replacement police vehicles (see related article).