In more of an ethical decision than a practical one, the Clayton Town Council voted Monday night against adding 33 cents to the base rates for water, sewer and electricity.
Town Manager Steve Biggs had proposed ending the $3.95 charge residents encounter when using credit cards to pay utility bills, thinking that doing so would reduce the number of bad checks coming into town hall. But the council determined that asking residents to shoulder the costs of their neighbors, even a dime, was wrong.
In the last 10 months, 622 bad checks passed through town hall, each tying up an hour of staff time, billing director Ann Game told the council last month. Those hours add up to a third of a year for one employee, time Game thinks Clayton could get back if it stopped charging for credit card use.
Game said some of the people writing bad checks to Clayton might be scared off by the $3.95 fee a third-party processor tacks on to use a credit card. Raising the base rates 33 cents for everyone would absorb the credit card fees and work out as a revenue wash for the town.
The council, though, sees that possible dollar, if the resident has all three utilities, as too steep a price for its peace of mind. Councilman Art Holder was the most vocal opponent to the plan when it was laid out last month, and he held firm Monday night.
“What we’re doing is we’re saying to the two-thirds that aren’t using the credit cards and asking them to pay part of the fee for the ones that do use the credit cards,” Holder said. “As far as I’m concerned, we should leave it as it is.”
Councilman Bob Satterfield said what the town might gain in convenience it would lose in equality.
“If I went to the Clayton Steakhouse and every time I ordered something, he told me, OK, well we’re going to add $3 to your bill because so and so didn’t pay, I’d have a problem with that,” Satterfield said. “I understand it’s added in at places, and it could have been added in here. But since it’s been brought to the forefront and everyone knows it going to be added on, I think it needs to be added on versus you taking it out of me.”
Councilman Michael Grannis, who owns the Clayton Steakhouse and charges credit card users the same as those paying with cash, said raising utility fees would punish citizens doing nothing wrong.
“I definitely don’t feel it’s the responsibility of the rest of our citizens to make that up,” Grannis said. “If they choose to pay by credit card, they’re going to know there’s a fee for that, but they’re going to know it’s not coming into our pocket, it’s going into the processor’s pocket.”
The one citizen speaking out against the proposal, former councilman and current planning board member Bob Ahlert, was concerned Clayton would be harming its citizens just to collect a buck.
“By encouraging credit card use, we’re becoming enablers for the most disabled financial people who are having problems writing checks,” Ahlert said. “We’re encouraging them to use credit cards, which means they’re going to increase the balance they have on their credit cards and encourage them to have more debt. I don’t think that’s right.”
The council also held a public hearing on its proposed $53.1 million budget for next year, but without a built-in tax increase or rate hikes, the public had no comment.
Mike Marvel of the Johnston Health Foundation stopped by to thank the council for agreeing to donate $50,000 over the next two budget years for a 3D mammogram machine at Johnston Health.
Marvel said the hospital had already purchased the $500,000 machine and asked the foundation to collect half of the cost. He said the foundation is still about $120,000 short, assuming Clayton’s donation stays in. That appears likely, but that doesn’t mean it’s going down easy. Councilman Satterfield worried that Clayton taxpayers are paying into the machine multiple times before they ever have to pay to use it.
“Whenever a nonprofit comes to Clayton asking for money, maybe they’ve already received money from the federal government, from the state, from the county and then from Clayton,” Satterfield said in an interview. “So by that time, our taxes have gone to it four times. A nonprofit just means there’s no profit at the end of the year.”
Marvel argued Monday night that donations to the hospital are a matter of economic development. The better equipped the town’s hospital is, he said, the better doctors it will attract and the more citizens will move into Clayton knowing their medical needs can be met locally.
“I think we can all agree, undeniably, that (the hospital) has been a motivating, driving engine to the growth of the town and the things that have happened out on that (N.C.) 42 corridor,” Marvel said.
The 3D mammogram machine falls under economic development, he said. “I didn’t come to Steve and talk about a charitable donation,” he said. “I came to Steve to talk about how can we partner up on this deal so that we can get this machine in Clayton, which it’s here now, and it’s operating and it’s already saved some lives between the two hospitals.” (Johnston Health also has a hospital in Smithfield.)
Separately, the council suggested that $75,000 budgeted for a general playground could go instead to the planned universal playground at East Clayton Community Park. The council plans to revisit the universal playground project this fall and determine how much money it’s willing to contribute to the public-private venture.
Satterfield said the playground could cost as much as $600,000 to build, but he noted that supporters have raised only a fifth of that amount so far.
Monday’s meeting was the last for longtime Clayton town manager Steve Biggs, whose last day in city hall was Friday. Biggs departs for the manager position in Christiansburg, Va., after guiding Clayton through a period of historic growth.
A few local leaders, including former councilman Bob Ahlert, Lyn Austin of the Clayton Cultural Arts Foundation and Archer Lodge Councilman Carlton Vinson, wished Biggs well as he leaves the town. Mayor Jody McLeod presented Biggs with two picture frames, including photos of the Clayton Center. McLeod said Biggs was instrumental in turning the former school into the arts and governmental building it is today.
“You’ve had a lot of success in Clayton, and we have had a lot of success because of you,” McLeod said. “One thing that surpasses everything, one thing that will be here far longer than you or I will ever be, is this facility in which we’re standing. This is something that will support the Town of Clayton for decades and decades and decades and decades and decades to come.”
Biggs’ response was subdued.
“Thank you,” he said.
Drew Jackson; 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson