The Town Council last Wednesday passed a $38.9 million budget that keeps taxes and utility rates steady while raising fees for developers and people using the town’s recreation programs.
Most Smithfield residents won’t see a change in their monthly utility bill unless county commissioners sign off on a proposed increase in the sewer rate, which is likely. County Manager Rick Hester has proposed raising the rate by 15 cents per 1,000 gallons.
“We’re not looking to increase our fees, except to cover that increase from the county,” said Town Manager Paul Sabiston.
But people who take part in the town’s recreation programs will pay more in the year ahead. Swim lessons, for example, will cost more for both residents and nonresidents.
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Also, groups renting ball fields for tournaments will have to pay a $200 nonrefundable fee.
A planning department fee is going up as well. Because of new state requirements for stormwater inspection and engineering, that fee will increase to $100 per acre with a $750 minimum, up from $30 per acre with a $600 minimum.
“It may still not cover our costs, but it’s a step in that direction,” Sabiston said of the increase.
The budget passed without fanfare or public comment. Councilmen Andy Moore and Perry Harris were absent, but the rest of the council unanimously voted to approve it.
The budget cuts about $269,800 in total spending from last year. That’s a cut of less than 1 percent from the current; the Town Council had said it wanted 5 percent.
Still, Sabiston said spending as a percentage of revenue would be less in the year ahead thanks to growth in tax receipts. The downtown tax, for example, brought in $260,000 more this year. The town manager said most that money would go into savings.
To lower spending, the council delayed a few capital purchases, including two new air conditioning units. The town manager also cut overtime pay.
Councilman Emery Ashley called the new budget “status quo” but said it was likely the best the council could hope to do this year. He said he was never wedded to the 5-percent target; instead, he wanted to open a discussion about reducing government spending.
Next year, Ashley said, he wants to begin the budget process earlier – around August rather than March. And he wants to begin looking at ways to make the town’s power rates more competitive with those charged by Duke Energy Progress.
“We can talk about economic development all we want, but if our electric costs are higher than Progress Energy’s, we’re not going to have much economic development,” he said.