Waynesville budget will come down to the wire

Waynesville’s public hearing for its annual budget will be held on June 11. Cory Vaillancourt photo Waynesville’s public hearing for its annual budget will be held on June 11. Cory Vaillancourt photo

A rare public impasse by Council Members over the Town of Waynesville’s proposed budget will leave things unsettled for the time being, foreshadowing prolonged negotiations over an all-but-certain tax increase. 

“I understand the tough times, with the individuals and people in our community facing inflation and things that are going on,” said Council Member Julia Freeman during a May 28 budget presentation. “Unfortunately, I will not be supporting this budget.”

The budget as presented requests a 3.78-cent ad valorem tax increase per $100 in assessed value, which would push the rate from 43.92 cents to 47.7 cents. Each cent on the rate equals around $165,000.

Over the past year, the town has experienced minor revenue growth. Ad valorem tax rolls have increased only 4%, worth $212,000 or 1.28 cents on the rate. A projected $180,000 in sales tax revenues and $100,000 in investment income this coming year will contribute to an estimated $1.59 million increase in general fund revenue necessary to meet rising costs in a number of areas.

A request by the Waynesville Police Department for two additional officers is included in the budget, as is a request for four additional firefighters. Additionally, a new entry-level planner will be responsible for administering the new stormwater fund, which imposes a nominal management fee based on the amount of impervious surface on properties. The fee will be used to provide stormwater management service and to comply with an unfunded mandate from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality to inspect all sanitary and stormwater lines in town.

After the Great Recession of 2008, governments across the country adopted conservative approaches to spending, especially on capital items, in response to lagging revenue. Waynesville is still playing a costly game of catch-up. Several years ago, Town Manager Rob Hites estimated the cost of fulfilling all departmental requests, all at once, could cost as much as 10 cents on the property tax rate.

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Inflation has also affected nearly every aspect of town government, including the town’s efforts to retain skilled employees. Nearly 50% of new general fund spending under the proposed budget is to keep the town’s compensation packages competitive with those of other regional employers, including a 2.5% cost-of-living adjustment that will cost $155,000 and a 2.5% increase in the career development program, budgeted at $258,000.

According to Hites’ budget summary, “when an organization loses a well-trained employee, it loses 50% of that positions productivity, while the position is vacant, and as the new employee learns their duties.”

Council Member Chuck Dickson and Mayor Gary Caldwell didn’t comment on the proposed budget during the short discussion, but Council Members Anthony Sutton and Jon Feichter did.

Sutton said he’d like to see the town increase the starting salary of police officers raised from $47,000 to $48,000, something he called a compromise from a previously requested $49,000.

Feichter agreed with Sutton.

“An as entity, the town has worked very hard to attract and retain police officers,” Feichter said. “I’d hate to see all that go to waste.”

Hites said he’d come back to Council with some figures on what the increase would cost. That will happen on June 11, when Waynesville’s Town Council holds its budget public hearing during its regular 6 p.m. meeting.

Per state statute, municipal budgets must be passed no later than June 30 each year. In the event the budget does not pass on June 11, the town has another regular meeting scheduled for June 25.

The town could also call a special meeting, with notice to the public of at least 48 hours, on any day it deems fit, to hold a budget adoption vote.

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