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After several consecutive years of growing budgets, Wilson’s proposed $250,584,970 spending plan reflects a 1.1% decrease from the city’s current budget.
“This proposed budget, as most things in our lives today, is clearly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” City Manager Grant Goings said in his budget message. “We have substantially lowered our projections for sales tax revenue in the coming year, we have funded a small percentage of capital requests, we have implemented a hiring freeze for positions not related to the provision of critical services or crisis recovery, we have shifted as many employees as possible to work from home and we have repurposed employees whose jobs have been temporarily impacted due to closures.”
UPS AND DOWNS
Goings gave an overview of the proposal during a virtual Wilson City Council meeting Thursday, which also was streamed online and on Greenlight Channel 8. The budget proposal doesn’t change the current property tax rate of 57.5 cents per $100 in property valuation, which is lower than Kinston, Rocky Mount and Goldsboro.
The plan doesn’t propose increases to natural gas or electric rates, but it does include a 50-cent monthly increase to the stormwater fee, which was an annual increase suggested by a citizen-led stormwater committee several years ago to help support infrastructure improvements. The proposal also has a 3% inflationary increase to permitting fees.
“For the first part of this year, our permitting was equal or greater than the same period in 2019 and 2019 was a good year for Wilson, but who pays permit fees of this nature?” Goings said. “Primarily it is developers and builders or those making large investments. And if they are building new retail or residential structures, they probably don’t fit the definition of someone who lost employment due to the pandemic, so we don’t really see that as directly impacting the citizens in the same way as utility rates.”
State and federal authorities have tossed around various ideas to assist local governments, especially those losing revenue due to the governor’s moratorium on utility disconnections due to nonpayment. Goings said the budget was crafted without dependence on government assistance.
“We are projecting a significant revenue decrease in sales tax. Thirteen or 14% is our best estimate, but you’ll see examples of those who are estimating far worse for their communities,” said Goings. “Just as we’ve seen some of these statewide policies, the one-size-fits-all approach causes problems. Local government budgeting varies from community to community, so this is our best projection of what we think Wilson will experience.”
STRONG FINANCIAL POSITION
Goings took some time to commend the council for fiscal policies that go beyond the fund balance requirements from the state with efforts tracing back to at least Hurricane Floyd.
“That was a devastating natural disaster, and I think the city learned from that to be in a pretty good fiscal position to handle whatever challenges may be thrown your way,” said Goings, who noted it helped during the Great Recession and is making it easier to weather the global pandemic. “Rather than deciding what departments to shut down or prioritizing what services to continue, you’re in a position to continue to operate with a bit of a cushion. We can provide services in a consistent manner and monitor the situation closely in fiscal year 2021 and if I need to come to you for adjustments, we’ll do that.”
Other cities have reported significant issues balancing their budgets, including a roughly $2.6 million revenue shortage in Rocky Mount.
“Without your leadership, the proposed FY 2021 budget would look much different,” Goings said in his budget message. “Due to your leadership, the proposed budget uses some of our reserves to guarantee our citizens will not suffer from loss of city services in addition to all the other challenges they are facing due to the pandemic.”
Goings said initial requests totaled nearly $30 million, but $11,870,130 of capital outlay requests were approved with the majority of departmental priorities funded.
“One of the more difficult estimates is the sales tax revenue, which is the second largest revenue source and most susceptible to ups and downs,” he said. “Property tax is a pretty stable revenue source, but the sales tax can fluctuate, so making a prediction on sales tax revenue is part science and part art. Generally speaking, if budget estimates are a combination of art and science, we’re a little heavier on the art side this year with more unknowns.”
The city council will hold a budget workshop the first week of June, and a public hearing is scheduled for 7 p.m. on June 18.
Also during the Thursday night meeting, council members agreed to work with Via to pioneer an on-demand microtransit system in the fall. The city received six additional proposals, but staff recommended Via based on the company’s track record and similar experience in other cities, system and software design as well as customer service and marketing.
Rodger Lentz, Wilson chief planning and development officer, said the city will spent the next few weeks negotiating a contract with Via, which is set to spend as much as $1.33 million on 11 Chrysler Pacificas — including some equipped for wheelchair accessibility — that would operate during the city’s current mass transit hours.
“This week, the city has also submitted a grant application in coordination with NCDOT to the Federal Transit Administration to help support expanding the service hours and/or geographical coverage,” Lentz said in a statement. “We will not hear the results of that application until sometime this coming fall.”
City officials met with staff in the city’s current mass transit division and are working to transition personnel into internal vacant positions. Via will hire staff to operate the system, so some of the city’s current drivers could be offered positions.
“This is an exciting and innovative project that is hoped to improve transit access to more of Wilson’s residents,” Lentz said. “Access to employment, training opportunities and services will improve the quality of life for our transit riders.”