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Proposed Winston-Salem budget includes expanded Sunday bus service

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com

Winston-Salem’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2013-2014 represents a hodgepodge of interests fitting for a city perpetually balanced on knife’s edge of conservative tradition and progressive innovation.

Following a revaluation that shrunk the city’s tax base by 10 percent, the budget includes a tax increase that nonetheless will result in a reduced tax bill for most property owners.

The $378.8 million budget is 3.4 percent smaller than the current year.

It includes $1.5 million in savings, which account for only a third of the total cost-cutting recommendations made by a citizens committee tasked with finding efficiencies.

The budget includes an investment in side-loading refuse trucks that will further automate the sanitation department and gradually eliminate jobs, but sets aside a recommendation to require citizens to provide a doctor’s note to qualify for backyard trash pickup.

It allocates $2.2 million for arts and community-development nonprofits ranging from the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County to community-development corporations and programs designed to promote rental assistance and workforce development.

The budget eliminates positions of crime analysts and fire inspectors, but allocates $425,000 to inaugurate Sunday bus service.

“This is a very fiscally responsible budget,” City Manager Lee Garrity said last week. “All of our services are being maintained. This budget has 52 less positions than the previous budget. But again, it maintains our service levels. And I think most importantly, this budget enables us to maintain about 70 percent of our property owners who pay taxes to pay the same or in most instances less on their taxes. Seventy percent of the taxpayers in this proposed budget would pay the same or less.”

The proposed tax rate of 53 cents per $100 of valuation is 3.9 cents higher than the current rate of 49.1 cents, but it’s 1.25 cents less than the revenue-neutral rate of 54.25 cents needed to make up for a revenue loss of more than $7 million.

For a family that owns a house valued at $150,000, that equates to a city tax bill of $795 on top of the $1,076 they will pay in taxes to the county, which also raised its rate to compensate for the atrophied tax base.

Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, chair of the finance committee and the most conservative Democrat on council, said she was skeptical about whether the city can maintain adequate revenues while cutting taxes by 1.25 cents. On the spending side, she expressed concern that the city’s compensation level for police officers and firefighters is not as competitive as it should be.

“We’re in a situation where we’re going to be looking at compression issues,” she said. “We had a small bonus one year. We’ve had no salary increases for two years. I’m afraid we’re going to get behind.”

The proposed budget includes funding for a 1.5-percent merit increase but no cost-of-living adjustment.

On Monday, Merschel proposed a tiered pay raise — an idea that resonated with Councilwoman Molly Leight and other members.

Merschel said she holds reservations about expanding bus service.

“How can we add additional services in a year that we’re struggling with the revaluation?” she asked.

Councilman Dan Besse, a stalwart supporter of public transit who has long advocated for Sunday service, said Monday that he is confident the measure will survive budget deliberations this week. He said he and Leight are on board and that comments by council members Derwin Montgomery and James Taylor indicate that they will vote to support the expansion. He added that he “would hope” Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke will close ranks to give the measure the five votes needed for passage.

Leight says she is disappointed that the city was unable to persuade the city’s two major hospitals, which are Baptist Hospital and Forsyth Medical Center, to contribute financially to the program.

“It’s a crying shame that the medical centers don’t support it,” she said. “It’s their employees who use it.”

Baptist Hospital and Novant Health, Forsyth Medical Center’s parent company, are the largest employers in Forsyth County, according to Winston-Salem Business Inc., a local economic development agency.

Leight said she’s interested in looking into the possibility of imposing fees for fire protection and sanitation service on nonprofits, including the two hospitals, considering that they are exempt from taxation.

Merschel and Leight also differ on grants to nonprofits.

Merschel said she would like to see the nonprofits leverage their resources more effectively to serve the community without relying as much on the city.

But Leight says she sees the work performed by nonprofits that receive taxpayer funding as central to the city’s mission.

“Yes, there is a certain portion of the population that would support those different agencies and arts organizations,” she said, “but as a city everyone benefits from what they do. It does make sense to me that if we’re a city of the arts, we should fund the arts.”

Funding for organizations designated as “arts and sciences community agencies” in the proposed budget is down 2 percent from $614,120 the previous year. The budget includes $247,540 for the arts council, $170,630 for SciWorks, $73,130 for the National Black Theatre Festival, $48,000 for Old Salem, $36,570 for RiverRun International Film Festival and $25,000 for the Piedmont Triad Film Commission. Reynolda House Museum of American Art, which received $12,500 last year to support an exhibit of the late artist Romare Bearden, did not request funds this year.

The Institute for Dismantling Racism is requesting $60,000 and Creative Corridors is seeking $15,000 to pay for public engagement work. The requests are not included in the current budget. The Rev. Willard Bass, executive director of the Institute for Dismantling Racism and a prominent social-justice advocate, and Russell DuBois, executive director of Creative Corridors, each appeared before council last week to plead the cases of their respective organizations.

The so-called “community and business development” agencies slated to receive taxpayer funds include a vast array of organizations engaged in housing, employment, economic development and social assistance work.

The budget eliminates funding for Harry Veterans Community Outreach Services and the National Association for Black Veterans, but allocates $12,500 for the NC Housing Foundation’s Veterans Helping Veterans Heal project.

It increases funding for Experiment in Self-Reliance’s tax preparation program by 623 percent — from $4,150 to $30,000.

A new recipient is the NAACP, which is slated to receive $78,000 to support the “rehabilitation/renovation of a community center and development of a community center,” according to the proposed budget.

The budget eliminates funding for the Piedmont Triad Regional Council of Government’s summer youth employment program, while adding $200,000 for the Urban League’s workforce development training program and Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind. It eliminates funding for SG Atkins Community Development Corp. and Ujima Community Development Corp. while adding $375,000 for Union Community Development Corp.

It increases funding to the Winston-Salem Foundation for Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods from $21,170 to $37,170. The budget increases funding for the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem’s tenant-based rental assistance program from $157,000 to $190,000.

The budget increases funding to Liberty-East Redevelopment Corp. and allocates $8,820 to Liberty Community Development Corp., whose president, Jim Shaw, is Mayor Allen Joines’ reelection campaign co-chair.

The budget eliminates 52 positions, including 28 employees of Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Bowman Gray Stadium. The city is in the process of offloading the two facilities, and employees will be eligible for hire by the new owners, Wake Forest University and Winston-Salem State University.

The budget for the police department will take a substantial hit, with the elimination of 10 grant-funded officer positions, for a total savings of about $547,000. The proposed budget also calls for the elimination of a vacant information-systems analysis and two crime-analyst positions. Assistant Chief David Clayton said one of the positions was vacant and the other crime analyst has landed a job with the Fort Worth Police Department.

On the recommendation of the Citizens’ Organizational Efficiency Review Committee, the budget calls for the fire department to stop responding to what the city deems “non-emergency medical incidents” to save $145,000. Also upon recommendation from the efficiency committee, the budget calls for elimination of a fire inspector position to save $60,140.

The budget document includes a statement of reassurance: “The elimination of this position should have no impact on community safety, and the workload associated with this position will be spread to other fire personnel.”

International Association of Fire Fighters Local 682 President David Pollard publicly disagreed with the budget office on that point in late April.

On Monday night, uniformed firefighters waited outside a committee room at City Hall for the public safety committee to convene so they could let council members know their feelings yet again.

WANNA go?

The Winston-Salem City Council holds a public hearing on the proposed fiscal year 2013-2014 budget in Room 230 of City Hall, located at 101 N. Main St., on June 17.

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