RALEIGH -- The City Council approved a $681 million budget Monday that Mayor Nancy McFarlane said would make Raleigh the envy of her fellow mayors across the nation.
The budget, which passed by a 7-1 vote, keeps support for local arts and nonprofit groups at current levels and gives a lift to beleaguered city employees with $1,000 merit pay increases or bonuses.
As many cities wrestle with layoffs and deep spending cuts, Raleigh’s budget reflects an improved outlook, said McFarlane, noting that she had just returned from a U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting in Orlando.
“There are a lot of mayors who would love to be in the financial position we’re in,” McFarlane said.
The “no” vote was from Councilman John Odom, who has cited concerns about too much spending on the arts and other nonpublic safety items. Odom is the council’s lone Republican.
The budget includes a 0.91-cent property tax increase approved by voters through transportation and housing bonds on the October ballot. The tax for a home valued at about $188,000, the median value in Raleigh, would rise by a little more than $17 a year.
Solid waste service fees will go up by $1 per month, an increase that will free up $1.4 million for renovations to fire stations, community centers and parks.
Residents will see a 15 percent increase to sewer rates. City officials were quick to point out the recommendation came from a citizens group that studied how to maintain Raleigh’s utility system.
Council members will get $5,000 salary increases and, for the first time, be allowed to buy health and dental insurance through the city.
Currently, the mayor is paid $15,000 annually, plus $2,400 a year for car and other expenses. The seven council members each earn $10,000 plus $1,200 for expenses.
In a change added Monday, the raises will be spread over five years. The increase is designed to put Raleigh closer to its peers in Greensboro, Durham and Charlotte. It’s the first pay change in 20 years.
“We should be (serving) because we love our community,” said Councilman Bonner Gaylord. “At the same time, we want to be on par with other communities and not have a situation where we’re devaluing the role” of council members.
Last year, Raleigh had to address a $12 million shortfall in what City Manager Russell Allen called the toughest budget of his 30-year career.
The budget approved Monday aims to address a backlog of capital projects delayed by the recession. Allen intends to put $101 million toward aging public utilities and more than $30 million toward roads, sidewalks and transit upgrades.
“This year was a little easier,” said Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin. “We didn’t have to make some of the hard decisions we had to make the past four years. Even though money is still tight, we had more flexibility.”