City Manager Tom Bonfield spares property owners a tax increase in his proposed 2015-16 budget, while raising appropriations for deferred maintenance and repaving city streets.
Overall, Bonfield projects taking in and spending $386.5 million, $3.4 million less than the current fiscal year, and holding the property-tax rate at 59.12 cents per $100 valuation.
“A balanced budget with no tax increase, I’m sure is sweet to many people’s ears,” Mayor Bill Bell said after Bonfield presented his plan to the City Council last week.
Before his presentation, Bonfield himself described his budget proposal, his seventh since becoming Durham city manager in 2008, as “very, very positive.”
For the first time, he said, “We didn’t go into the budget (process) mandating department cuts.” With the recession and a sluggish recovery, “Every year it seemed we’ve just been digging our way out.”
That experience has led to a new “financial discipline” at City Hall, with payoffs in next year’s spending plans.
For example, the city’s fund balance, a cash reserve important to a city’s credit rating, is more 20 percent of budget appropriations – well above the state’s recommended 8 percent and Durham’s own goal of 12 percent.
With that extra money on hand, Bonfield recommended using $1.7 million for several “one-time initiatives,” including a consultant to update the 2006 DurhamWalks! sidewalk plan.
The budget also raises the appropriation for street resurfacing from this year’s $750,000 to $2 million in 2015-16, and deferred maintenance from $500,000 to $600,000.
No adds for police, fire
The budget includes a $170.2 million general fund for day-to-day operations, a $4.8 million decrease from 2014-15, but that’s more a result of bookkeeping than cost cutting, Bonfield said.
“Some of that is just the way we account for things,” Bonfield said. For example, a portion of the property tax levied for household garbage collection has been shifted out of the general fund and into a dedicated solid-waste fund.
Earlier this year, Fire Chief Dan Curia and Police Chief Jose L. Lopez asked the city administration for additional firefighters and police officers, but they are not part of the proposed budget.
Bonfield’s budget adds crime analyst and administrative assistant positions in the police department, but no sworn officers or firefighters.
“We have more work to do in that regard,” he said. “We’re going to need more,” but Curia and Lopez have not produced specific plans for using the extra personnel.
“I’m committed to ... work with them, now, to identify how they are using the resources they have and what opportunities there are for additional resources, how they will be used,” Bonfield said. “And then, what difference that’s going to make.”
Nor are there appropriations for major capital projects, such as sidewalk construction and new swimming pools. That’s due in part to using property-tax receipts that were previously dedicated for debt service to making up revenue lost with the state’s elimination of business privilege licenses – about $2.9 million.
On a positive note, Bonfield said the city is starting to see some revenue growth as the economy recovers from recession.
His budget projects a 2 percent increase in property-tax income, “still on a slow go despite all the development that seems to be happening everywhere,” but a 6 percent increase in sales-tax receipts.
Sales-tax income, though, remains uncertain. State legislators are still considering changing the sales-tax distribution formula to send more money to rural counties and less to urbanized areas such as Durham.
“We did not plan for any change,” Bonfield said. “It’s just too unpredictable.
“We made a decision that we were going to balance the budget ... based on what we know,” he said. “We will just have to wait and see what happens, if it happens, when the General Assembly gets done doing what they’re going to do.”
Current officers and firefighters stand to get raises of 3 percent to 5 percent, based on performance; other city employees are recommended for an average pay increase of 3.5 percent.
“E-Town Hall” June 1
A public hearing on the budget proposal, including an online “E-Town Hall” session, is scheduled at 7 p.m. June 1 during the regular City Council meeting.
WRAL television reporter Ken Smith is moderator for the event, which the city is going to televise on Time Warner Cable channel 8 or 97-5 and AT&T U-verse channel 99, and live-stream at nando.com/1as.
During the town hall, council will respond to residents’ questions submitted in advance. Questions may be submitted, by May 29, by:
▪ Email: eTownHall@DurhamNC.gov
▪ Facebook: http://Facebook.com/CityofDurhamNC
▪ Twitter: http://Twitter.com/CityofDurhamNC (#DurhamETH)
▪ YouTube: upload video and email link to eTownHall@DurhamNC.gov
▪ Durham One Call: 919-560-1200
Copies of the proposed budget are available at nando.com/1ao. Residents may also review hard copies in the City Clerk and budget offices at City Hall.