Waynesville budget follows county trends

Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown opened the town’s February budget retreat — his 17th or 18th, by his own reckoning — by setting the direction with a poignant quote.

“I find it odd we call it a retreat, because we’re not retreating,” Brown said. “We’re moving forward.”

Alderman Jon Feichter — participating in just his second — joined Brown, other aldermen and assembled department heads in preparing an initial draft of the town’s 2017-18 fiscal year budget, which was presented to the public for the first time on May 23. 

That budget proposes no increase in taxes, but like every other local government unit in Haywood County has to utilize fund balance to account for a disappointing countywide property revaluation. 

Economic realities, said Waynesville Town Manager Rob Hites — who is participating in his first budget cycle with the town — forced the town to craft a budget with reduced general fund expenditures over 2016-17. 

“The actual budget is 3 percent lower than last year,” said Hites. 

The biggest casualties of the belt-tightening are the town’s career development program and the merit pay program; although retaining an experienced workforce and bolstering worker morale were major factors cited in the firing of former Town Manager Marcy Onieal in early 2016, the town hopes the cuts aren’t permanent and still plans to issue $500 Christmas bonuses to most full-time employees. 

Three new town employees are proposed, two in the police department to help field more and more complex phone calls and one in the finance department. 

The town’s water fund is billing about 5 percent higher than usual because of prompt repairs by town staff and newer water meters, meaning no change to the rates will be needed. 

The sewer fund has seen similar revenue trends, but with looming repairs on the horizon for the town’s 1950s-era waste treatment plant, a 5 percent increase that had been previously scheduled will remain. 

Waynesville is one of few North Carolina municipalities that resells electricity from producers to municipal customers, and won’t raise rates this year, even though the town’s electric fund saw a roughly 5 percent revenue decrease over 2016-17, probably due to the warm winter. 

Hites said that the town has been able to avoid a health insurance rate increase, largely due to the shrewd negotiation skills of Assistant Town Manager Amie Owens; health care costs have become a thorn in the side of many municipalities — and ordinary citizens — in recent years. 

As regular costs increase even without new spending, Waynesville’s revenue neutral tax rate would have been 49.07 cents — just half a cent greater than the current and proposed 48.57 cent rate. 

Instead of raising taxes that amount to keep the budget leveled, the town has opted to utilize $314,040 in general fund balance even though Waynesville’s property tax base increased very slightly to $1.174 billion during the countywide revaluation completed earlier this year. 

Waynesville’s Municipal Service District — which levies an extra 20 cents of property tax within the downtown core that is administered by the Downtown Waynesville Association and spent on marketing the district — is assessed at $48 million in value and will not see a rate increase, but will see a small decrease in tax revenue. The revenue neutral rate for the MSD is 21.29 cents. 

Aside from the ever-increasing costs of doing regular business, a litany of departmental requests made town Finance Director Eddie Caldwell the most popular guy in town for a brief time; as the budget continues to develop and requests are granted or denied, that may change. 

As of today, Police Chief Bill Hollingsed will get that replacement Dodge Charger for patrol duties, but won’t get the body cams he wanted.

After a 2016 tax increase to fund the hiring of eight additional firefighters, however, 2016 Career Fire Chief of the Year Joey Webb won’t get a nickel of his $330,000 in requests for vehicles. Same goes for the Streets and Sanitation department, which requested $243,000 for new trucks. 

Rhett Langston’s Parks and Recreation Department will see $128,000 in new spending, including $112,000 for an adaptive playground in Recreation Park.

Waynesville’s water, sewer and electrical operations will see almost $700,000 in capital improvements, including new vehicles, new lab equipment, pumps and a paint/preservation job on the Big Cove water tank. 

Hites’ approach to the budget aims to forestall a catastrophic decrease in fund balance that would occur were spending not checked. 

“The town was in the practice of appropriating about a million dollars a year in fund balance, which would leave us broke in a matter of years,” Hites said. 

Waynesville’s fund balance is around $5.4 million, or about 39 percent of yearly expenditures. If adopted, this year’s budget would trim that number slightly to around 36 percent. Similar-sized cities have an average balance of 52 percent. 

“My approach is to look at the budget in five-year increments, and this is how it’s going to be until revenues begin to increase again,” he said. 

A public hearing on the 2017-18 Town of Waynesville proposed budget will be held at 1 p.m. on Friday, June 9, in the Town Hall Board Room located at 9 South Main Street; after addressing citizen concerns, the budget will be presented for final approval at the Town of Waynesville’s regular board meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 27.  

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