Sometimes, just one voice can ring loudly.
That was the case last week during a public hearing on the town’s proposed budget, when former town manager Donald Horton stood to praise the plan.
Horton had only good things to say about the spending plan that calls for a significant tax increase and has yet to be adjusted by the town’s elected officials.
Horton even thanked the Town Board for hiring current Town Manager Joe Moore last summer.
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“After thorough review of the proposed budget on the computer, I felt compelled to appear before you in a public meeting to support this budget so thoughtfully prepared and presented by (Moore) and his staff,” Horton said. “The proposed budget is much more than required by law. It includes a detailed review of the current status of financial issues faced by the town, and then provides a well thought-out and documented financial plan for the future.”
Commissioners, in a less common move, decided to hold a public hearing before rolling up their own sleeves and making whatever changes they see fit to the budget. Attendance at last week’s public hearing was considerably larger than in most town meetings. Commissioners plan to hold a work session June 15 and, only if needed, another on June 21.
“This is the budget that’s been presented to us by staff,” Mayor Bob Matheny informed the crowd. “We have not really massaged it or worked on it yet, so we want to hear what you have to say and it’s not necessarily the final document. I just wanted you to understand that.”
Horton, however, told the commissioners if he was sitting in their seat he would vote for the $11.24 million budget as presented.
He told the board he knows it won’t be easy increasing the current tax rate as proposed by 5 cents (to 57.5 cents per $100 of assessed value) – to a rate that is 8.2 cents more than the rate estimated to generate the same tax revenue as last year, prior to Wake County’s property revaluation.
But he made the point that starting the process of catching up on infrastructure needs now is a necessary evil if the town wants to avoid an even worse situation in the future.
“If it is tough for you, just imagine how difficult it must be for a manager to submit such a budget in his first year on the job,” Horton said. “It takes a tremendous amount of courage and commitment to the future of the Town of Zebulon to take this action.”
The meeting came with some additional publicity by Denise Nowell, the executive director of the Zebulon Chamber of Commerce, who sent an email informing chamber members how to obtain copies of the proposed budget and encouraging them to attend and participate in the public hearing.
The proposal earmarks $10,000 in sales tax revenue growth for a community and economic development partnership with the chamber.
It undoubtedly helped the attendance count that presentations on the recent May Day in Zebulon promotion and the Zebulon Youth Council, and final consideration of a contentious rezoning request related to a solar farm project were also on the agenda for the night.
Regardless of what prompted it, the meeting drew what was one of the largest turnouts at town hall in nearly a decade.
Fork in the road
As part of his presentation, Moore gave some history on major events affecting the town’s finances in recent years and how when revenues declined the town didn’t reinvest in its streets, vehicle fleet and staff – areas the proposed budget would begin to restore.
“We primarily experienced this revenue drop because our personal property tax revenue dropped as well as hold harmless revenue – which was a replacement to the inventory tax that we lost in the late ’80s and early ’90s – dropped away completely,” Moore said.
Staff’s plan recommends an ongoing, annual dedication of four cents of the tax rate toward street and vehicle upkeep, and another one cent toward property management and making Zebulon a more walkable community.
As Horton wrapped up his endorsement, he said the growth at Zebulon’s doorstep is exciting but that it also leaves the town at a fork in the road.
“If we take the fork that takes advantage of the combined talents of (Moore) and his staff and partner and utilize the renewed energy of the Zebulon Chamber of Commerce under the leadership of (Nowell), the future of Zebulon looks bright, indeed,” Horton said. “If we decide to take the fork that does not move us forward in a positive way, and kick the can further down the road, things will not be so bright.”