A four-hour budget meeting last week left the Clayton Town Council with more questions than answers. At something of a crossroads for the town, the answers lie in what Clayton sees as its future, not necessarily the needs of the present.
From now until June 20, the council will consider Town Manager Steve Biggs’ $53.1 million budget, one built without a tax increase but one that recommends $8 million more than last year, including $1 million that would stay in future budgets.
What the town manager bills as “quality of life” upgrades, residents might see as just $1 million more in recurring salaries. Biggs looks to add 22 positions in this budget, but since most would start later in the fiscal year, their $1 million in salaries would be spread over the next two budgets. Councilman Art Holder questioned how many of the jobs would pay for themselves in increased town revenue.
Some will pay for themselves, some are tied to growth, and some are quality-of-life additions, Biggs said. Next year, he wants to bring yard-waste pickup and some maintenance in house, adding three new sanitation workers and four property-maintenance positions. The town manager also wants Clayton to hire a GIS coordinator, a technician and a water and sewer locator to cut down on time wasted searching for problems along pipes. All three positions, Biggs said, would require new spending but would put the town in better control of its infrastructure.
“Last year Clayton was moving from a large- to medium-sized town to a small city; this is part of that,” Biggs said of the GIS coordinator position. “This is city-level kind of work. This is the kind of work you need to efficiently maintain your infrastructure.”
The biggest controversy in the budget is the proposal for the town not to charge customers $3.95 every time they pay their utility bill with a credit card. Instead, Biggs proposes to add 11 cents to the base rates for water, sewer and electricity, for a total of 33 cents if the customer has all three town services. The move would be a wash for the town, but not for residents, however nominal.
Billing director Ann Game said the town received 622 bad checks in the last 10 months, with each checking taking an hour to deal with. Add those hours up, and they’re equal to one-third of one staffer’s time, she said. If the town encouraged credit-card use by doing away with the fee, it would cut down on bad checks, Game said.
“They stand there and hear the credit card fee and that stops them right there,” she said. “These people are floating. They’re trying to buy themselves some time so we don’t disconnect their services.”
The prospect of asking some residents to pay more because of the actions of others caused some divide on the council. Councilman Holder said he could not support the plan.
“The very fact we’re telling two-thirds of our customers, ‘Because this other third has made the decision to use a credit card, you’re going to pay their fees,’ that’s not right. No,” Holder said.
Game said Apex, Holly Springs, Wake Forest and Cary don’t charge credit card fees, and she compared the plan to two people eating in a restaurant, one paying cash, one paying with a card, and each paying the same price.
“But that store doesn’t live in a neighborhood where we’ve got to charge you 33 cents per month so your neighbor can use their credit card,” Holder said.
In an effort to keep officers in the field, the police department proposes paying for overtime instead of allowing officers to build up compensatory time. Police Chief Wayne Bridges said many have more than they could ever use.
“It grows and grows and puts us in a position where we’ve got to give officers time off work when we need them here,” Bridges said.
The move would keep the town from adding two new officers this year, but Police Chief Wayne Bridges said continued growth and an 18-percent increase in calls for service mean those officers are coming eventually.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if they weren’t in the budget next year,” Bridges said.
The overtime pay would likely cost $119,000 but would keep the town from spending the $219,000 to pay, train and outfit two officers with cars and equipment.
This year’s budget makes room for some kind of playground in East Clayton Community Park. For two years, a private campaign has been under way to raise money for a playground accessible to children with disabilities, but so far nothing has been built. Parks and Recreation director Larry Bailey proposed a $75,000 playground that wouldn’t replace that idea but would offer some kind of playground sooner rather than later.
“A park without a playground is not a park, according to a lot of people,” Bailey said. “We feel like it’s time to put some funds into getting some kind of playground out there.”
The playground would be built near the spot reserved for the universal playground, Bailey said. That caused unease for some councilmen. Holder argued that for parents with children with and without disabilities, a split playground would be undesirable.
Councilman Jason Thompson said the separate playground could undermine efforts to build the inclusion playground.
“We do not convey a good message if we say that all kids should play together and use one playground, and yet we have one playground for this group of kids and this one over here for this one,” Thompson said. “I think it needs to be one true universal playground. And it’s time as a town, if it’s not going to happen with private contributions, we need to see what we can do to make it happen. I hate to see something that causes division between children.”
Bailey said the $75,000 could also go as a contribution to the universal playground.
The town council will hold a public hearing on the 2016-17 budget at 6:30 p.m. June 6 in The Clayton Center. After that hearing, the council is expected to make a decision at least on the credit card fees.
Also included in the 2016-17 Clayton budget:
▪ Property-tax revenue should top $10 million for the first time, and sales tax revenue should exceed $3 million.
▪ Nine new positions in the fire department, one water and sewer compliance officer, one administrative support worker in engineer, a senior lineman for the electricity department and a conference center support specialist.
▪ A switch from the Smith & Wesson .45 to a Glock 9mm will cost $16,600 after the police department sells old guns and ammo back to vendors.
▪ Construction will start this month on the $1.6 million pedestrian connector from the Community Center to near U.S. 70 Business. The town’s contribution is $495,951.
▪ The planning department wants an extra $5,000 for facade-improvement grants, bringing the total to $30,000
▪ A $100,000 renovation to the human resources offices.