After Apex officials called a last-minute meeting to cut $1.2 million from the town’s $43 million budget, they ultimately decided not to cut anything and to dip into savings to make ends meet.
That has been the plan throughout the budget process, despite some council members expressing hesitancy to do so. The Town Council voted 4-1 Tuesday to use their savings to pay for sidewalks and another traffic lane near the entrance to Apex Community Park, plus a fire truck, a rescue vehicle and flashing signs for school zones. Twenty-eight new positions in a variety of departments also were approved.
There will be one final vote on the budget Tuesday, June 16, at the town’s next meeting, following a public hearing that will give residents one last chance to chime in.
Council member Gene Schulze voted against the plan. He said if Apex regularly dips into its fund balance, savings will run out, and the property tax rate will have to rise.
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“We are spending more money this fiscal year than we are taking in,” he said.
But the rest of the council – Nicole Dozier, Bill Jensen, Scott Lassiter and Denise Wilkie – signed off on the plan. Apex has $16.3 million in the bank, more than five times what the state requires for a town its size.
Jensen said it makes financial sense. The town’s bank account earns less than 1 percent interest, but if the town borrows money, it has to pay 3 to 4 percent interest.
Wilkie said taxpayers gave the town much of that $16.3 million and want to see it used.
“They’re questioning why we’re sitting on this money when it’s cheap right now (and) why aren’t we spending it,” she said.
Lassiter asked the town’s staff what they thought of Schulze’s predictions of a tax hike.
Town Manager Bruce Radford said the town is planning a bond referendum for road work this year and a parks bond next year. If both pass, the tax rate would likely rise, he said.
But those bonds will be up to residents to approve at the ballot box. As for the budget itself, Radford promised the 2016-17 will not require a tax increase.
“I would stake my reputation and my job on it,” he said, although he hesitated to make predictions much further into the future.
That was enough for the majority of the council. They added back the vehicles, supplies and other equipment Schulze had suggested cutting as well as the eight new positions that Mayor Bill Sutton suggested cutting.
Arguing for jobs
Several department leaders pitched their requests for new employees, and not all of them were pleased to do so. Staff members were asked to defend the creation of eight new jobs out of 28 proposed jobs in next year’s budget, those that had been listed as low priorities.
“I’m disappointed, I’m embarrassed and I’m disheartened that I have to sit here today and compete in public with other department heads,” said John Brown, the director of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources.
He was asking for a mid-level manager, someone who would write grant requests and plan future projects. Brown started the department 30 years ago and said he has never asked for an assistant until now.
“You’re planning a parks bond in 2016,” he said. “The amount of work and effort that has to be put into something like that before you take it to the citizens of Apex is phenomenal.”
Police Chief John Lettney asked for a new detective to work drug cases. He said his department often asks outside agencies to look into leads and tips because his own investigators are overworked.
“There’s a significant problem with prescription drugs,” Lettney said, along with heroin and party drugs like MDMA. “More than we know, because we lack the resources to investigate.”
Tim Donnelly, director of the Public Works & Utilities Department, asked for a staffer to respond to complaints and deal with the growing amount of erosion in Apex. Due to increased development and heavy rains, he said, the town had a record number of calls about stormwater flooding last year.
Apex could continue its current level of service without this position, Donnelly said, but neither the staffers nor residents would be happy.
“We’ll get there,” he said. “It’ll just be late, not timely and not of the quality we could be giving.”
After staff members talked about three of the eight positions – environmental specialist, drug investigator and parks planner – Lassiter suggested they stop the meeting, because they seemed to be justified despite being low priority. The rest of the council agreed and approved all eight of the new positions.
Lassiter also apologized to the department heads.
“I feel like that’s a failure on our part, to drag you here at the last minute to defend those positions,” Lassiter said. “I’m all for scrutiny, but it should’ve happened earlier.”
The council later approved a plan suggested by Jensen to increase fees on residential developments by an additional $300 per acre, or about 9 percent. The fee is now about $3,400 per acre.
The town estimates 400 acres will be developed each year over the next three years, so the change could bring Apex an additional $120,000.
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The Town Council will have a public hearing Tuesday at 7 p.m. on the town’s budget. The council meets at 73 Hunter St., Apex.
The board also will hear from residents on several rezoning plans.
The most notable is a 121-acre tract in New Hill, near Jordan Lake. The rural land is set to become a neighborhood known as Jordan Manors in the next three or four years. The plan up for debate Tuesday would allow two homes per acre, or 240 new houses.
At least one area resident has said he plans to speak out against the proposed change.
“I’m not trying to stop the development,” Jim Compton said. “Development’s going to happen. But at the most it should be one unit per acre.”
Although Jordan Manors abuts and has a similar name to the Jordan Pointe subdivision, which already has been approved, Jordan Manors is being developed by a different company and is not an extension of Jordan Pointe.
When Jordan Pointe was approved a year ago, with similar density requirements that will allow for 440 homes on 300 acres, there was little opposition from New Hill residents.
Previously, the community was known for its activism against development, even taking the Town of Apex to court over plans for a new sewer plant to accommodate growth. The town settled, promising $500,000 for a New Hill community center in exchange for an end to the legal battle.