Southwest Wake News

Apex passes budget in divided vote

Apex passed its 2015-16 budget Tuesday night, committing to hiring 28 new employees and putting money toward traffic and safety projects without raising taxes.

The $43 million budget passed with a 4-1 vote. Council members Nicole Dozier, Bill Jensen, Scott Lassiter and Denise Wilkie voted for it. Mayor Pro Tem Gene Schulze voted against it.

Schulze said he disapproves of using money from the town’s savings account, known as a fund balance, to pay for $1 million worth of equipment and road work.

“This budget spends more than we’re taking in, and to me that’s a red flag,” said Schulze, a Republican.

Not everyone agreed. Lassiter, who is the council’s other registered Republican, said Apex offers services that many towns don’t, such as having its own emergency medical technicians, and yet it still has the third-lowest property tax rate in Wake County at 39 cents per $100.

“When we look at the services provided by the Town of Apex, we’re doing it cheaper than anyone else in the area, maybe the state,” Lasssiter said.

Apex has about $21 million in savings, including about $16 million that the town can spend and remain above the limit required by the state.

“We’re only dipping into a very, very small part of our reserve,” Jensen said.

Other council members said the town’s bank account earns less than 1 percent interest, and residents want to see their tax dollars put to use in a more productive manner.

“I think we’re being very fiscally responsible with this,” Wilkie said. “This is a one-time expense.”

The $1 million from savings will be used to buy a fire truck, a rescue vehicle and flashing signs for school zones, as well as to partner with Cary to build a new turn lane into the Apex Community Park on Lake Pine Drive.

The town has had plans to spend from its savings account each of the past three years, but ended up adding $6.5 million to its savings instead.

But this year the need for new personnel – driven largely by 16 new firefighters to staff a new fire station – meant the town had no choice but to go along with that original plan to use savings to supplement revenues from taxes and fees. No money from savings will be used for any recurring personnel expenses.

Bonds could raise taxes

Apex did not raise the property tax rate or any fees this year. The only way taxes will increase in the near future, Town Manager Bruce Radford said, is if voters approve two large bond referendums.

Schulze said voters likely will approve both referendums for road and parks projects. That’s why he wanted to keep growing the town’s savings account.

He said if the town used savings to pay for the bonds, the amount Apex would have to borrow – and therefore the associated tax increase – wouldn’t be as big.

“I think we should be spending our money a little more wisely,” Schulze said. “To me, a vote for this budget is a vote for a future tax increase.”

Mayor Bill Sutton, though, said he’s looking forward to at least the first bond.

“I personally think the highlight of the coming fiscal year will be the $15 million transportation bond put before voters in November,” Sutton said. “And I hope they say, ‘Yes.’”

If voters approve the bond, the town would borrow $15 million to complete the Apex Peakway loop around town and to fund assorted road maintenance projects.

It wouldn’t require a tax increase, officials say.

However, Apex officials have indicated they plan to put a second bond before voters in 2016 or 2017 to build new parks.

That second bond almost certainly would require a property tax rate increase if the transportation bond also passes.

Schulze said he wants Apex to have as much money as possible saved up if and when that happens.

“Why should we dip into the rainy day fund when we don’t have to?” he said. “(Monday) night, the Wake County Commissioners just raised taxes on all of us here ... and now we’re talking about piling it on.”

The county commissioners voted 5-2 to raise the Wake County property tax rate by 3.65 cents. Much of that new income will go to Wake County schools for teacher raises and magnet school expansions.

Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran