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Wednesday, 24 May 2017 14:21

Franklin faces tough decisions with tight budget

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When Franklin starting working on its 2017-18 budget, Town Manager Summer Woodard warned councilmembers that there was little wiggle room in the $8.6 million fiscal blueprint.

As town councilmembers started to pore through line items, they realized just how lean this year’s budget would be and weren’t happy about having to use $119,000 from their savings. The fund balance would then dip down below $600,000. 

“Our millage rate has been static for two years — I feel it’s getting squeezed pretty tight and I don’t see any big projects in here,” said Councilmember Joe Collins as he looked through the proposed budget. 

While some of the town’s revenue streams are anticipated to increase, Woodard said other sources were going to decrease from last year or will completely go away. 

She said the town would see a $42,000 decrease in property tax collections thanks to a recent revaluation. The town will also lose over $2,000 because it can no longer collect cable television franchise taxes paid by providers. 

The town also needs to increase its water and sewer rates to be able to have a self-sustaining water and sewer fund. 

“The town continues to experience slow growth in water and sewer revenues. It is paramount that the town of Franklin ensures water and sewer revenues can sustain expenditures in order to maintain existing infrastructure and planning needs for future water and sewer infrastructure,” Woodard said in her budget message. “The town should carefully prepare for unanticipated loss of revenues. Therefore, diligently maintaining a stable fund balance is key to long-term financial success.”

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Based on that, Woodard has suggested a 4-percent rate increase for base water and sewer services. However, she recommended the town maintain its tax rate of 28 cents per $100 of assessed value. 

Mayor Bob Scott questioned whether the town’s tax rate was keeping up with the town’ needs. As Collins pointed out earlier, the town hasn’t increased its tax rate since 2015 when it increased it by 1 percent, which generated an additional $60,000.  

“Do you feel our tax rate is reasonable compared to other towns or are we falling behind?” he asked. 

The town of Sylva increased its tax rate last year from 30 cents to 42 cents per $100 of value after not increasing its tax rate for 13 years. The town of Waynesville has increased its taxes the last two years in a row — 3 cents in 2015 and another 5 cents in 2016 to pay for more full-time firefighters. 

As tight as the budget is getting, Collins said he didn’t think the board was ready to vote on a tax increase this year. 

“We can’t stretch it much more, but I don’t want to see it increase,” agreed Councilmember Billy Mashburn. 

Councilmember Barbara McRae said perhaps a tax hike should wait another year since the board was increasing water and sewer rates this year. 

While the 2017-18 proposed budget would cover the essentials, the board went back and forth on what projects it could fund with the little money it has available. For instance, purchasing portable restrooms facilities for town events is on Collins’ wish list for this year, but the $30,000 expense will have to wait for now. 

McRae, who is part of the Nikwasi Corridor project, wants the town to contribute $12,5000 toward the project. The group is also working to get buy-in from the county and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to be able to create a cultural and educational experience surrounding the Nikwasi Mound in downtown Franklin. 

“It would create a real momentum and help us raise money from other sources,” she told the board. 

Scott suggested making the $12,500 commitment but spreading it out over the next two budget cycles, but the councilmembers seemed in agreement that they wanted to go ahead and fund the entire amount this year. 

“I just think we need to do it whether other entities do it or not to show we have faith in this project — it shouldn’t be contingent on others,” said Councilmember Brandon McMahan. 

The board agreed to allocate the town’s $7,000 economic development line item toward the Nikwasi corridor project and take the remaining $5,500 from its contingency fund. 

Another project that has been sitting idle for years is the town-owned Whitmire property on the corner of East Main Street and Highlands Road. The town purchased the 13 acres about 12 years ago, but still hasn’t decided the best use for it. Some members have shown interest in selling the property to a private developer while others want to keep the pristine green space for a town park or other outdoor recreation project. 

“The 900-pound guerilla in the room is the Whitmire property,” aid Collins, who has been in favor of selling the property. “There’s no rhyme or reason we can’t figure out the best use for it — that to me is our ace in the hole. If we can get that percolating and useful again it would help us restore the fund balance.”

The town will hold a public hearing regarding the proposed budget at 7 p.m. Monday, June 5, during its regular board meeting at town hall.

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