Clayton will kick off its 2017 budget season next month with an unusually timed public hearing.
At the recommendation of Town Manager Adam Lindsay, Clayton will hold a public hearing Feb. 6 for residents to talk about what they want to see in next year’s budget.
The hearing doubles the number of opportunities Clayton typically offers residents to comment on the town’s spending, or that state law requires.
“The state of North Carolina requires towns to hold a public hearing prior to the adoption of a budget, with the intent that you allow anyone from the public the opportunity to provide comments about your budget,” Lindsay said. “Depending on the community, that public hearing may happen close to the adoption of the budget or may happen at the very beginning of the process.”
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Lindsay asked the town council to try it both ways. This means citizens will have something of a first crack at the town’s budget, which the town manager usually presents in mid-March as a starting point.
“I’m making the suggestion that we hold two public hearings to accomplish both of those things, so we can solicit input from the public at the beginning of the process, to give them a chance to let us hear from them, and then again at the end,” Lindsay said. “So we’d actually give our citizens two opportunities to provide public input on our budget process.”
The public had little to say about last year’s $53.1 million budget, with only a few citizens asking for funding on behalf of specific groups. No one offered critical comments during a regular meeting, perhaps because the town passed its budget without a tax hike.
In that budget, former town manager Steve Biggs presented a budget that suggested Clayton had regained its footing in an uncertain economy, adding more than 20 positions and increasing operations spending by $1 million.
With next month’s hearing, Lindsay said he hopes to hear about where the public places its priorities.
“Any time we can hear what citizens think about their government in an open forum is a good thing,” Lindsay said. “We want to know about their priorities; capital items come to mind, and spending on programs. Whatever input we can get can helps us make decisions, and whenever they can raise their voice and make it known where their priorities are is a good opportunity.”
Lindsay said he’s still a ways off in drafting his budget proposal for the town but will soon be receiving spending requests from the town’s various department heads. Not even six months on the job, Lindsay said this year’s budget process will be important in teaching him about Clayton.
“It’s going to be an important process for me more than anyone else and give me a good sense of where we are financially,” Lindsay said. “It will help balance me out and help me in future decisions on where we place our priorities.”
Town finance director Robert McKie offered a preliminary look at Clayton’s finances earlier this month, revealing a town in step with its financial policies and with residents feeling confident enough in the local economy to spend more on goods and services.
Last week, the town’s auditor, Ken Anderson of Anderson, Smith and Wike, presented the town’s independent audit report, finding no inconsistencies in the town’s bookkeeping.
“The town is in very good shape, and it’s very well run and well managed,” Anderson told the town council Tuesday night. North Carolina requires its local governments to pay for an independent audit report each year. Anderson said he submitted Clayton’s to the Local Government Commission at the end of November.
Like McKie, Anderson noted Clayton’s healthy cash reserves of $5.5 million, or about 28 percent of the town’s general operating fund. Anderson said the LGC requires local governments to keep at least 8 percent in reserves, putting Clayton about three and half times the minimum.
Last year, Clayton exceeded its revenue projection in the general operating fund by about $74,000. Fueled by new residents and customers, the water and sewer fund took in $3.5 million more in revenue than it spent, while the electricity department took in $989,000 more. The town paid down its debt by $1.2 million, but the combined debts of the water, sewer and electricity departments grew by more than $4 million, led, Anderson said, by an additional $5 million for a sewer line from Clayton to Raleigh.