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Sylva’s proposed budget features less spending, level taxes

Police Chief Tammy Hooper discusses her budget needs with the board during a March 28 budget work session. Holly Kays photo Police Chief Tammy Hooper discusses her budget needs with the board during a March 28 budget work session. Holly Kays photo

At $4.06 million, Sylva’s proposed budget for 2019-20 will be nearly $200,000 lower than the adopted budget for 2018-19.

The lower number is due largely to a decreased need for large capital and equipment purchases in the upcoming year, as well as higher-than-expected revenues allowing for reduced appropriations from fund balance. 

In the initial version of the budget Town Manager Paige Dowling presented commissioners during a March 28 work session, $65,000 was to come from the town’s fund balance — $50,000 for sidewalks along N.C. 107 in coordination with the upcoming road project and $15,500 for repairs to the pool. But upward changes to revenue allowed incoming revenues to fund the pool repairs. 

“Everything is better with the revenue than it was when we met in March,” said Dowling during a May 2 work session. 

Commissioners were happy to hear that the pool repairs no longer had to come from what is equivalent to the town’s savings account, as pool maintenance is an expense the town expects to bear each year — during the March meeting, Commissioner David Nestler had expressed his reservations about continually using fund balance dollars for that purpose. 

“I don’t mind the transfer from fund balance for the sidewalk, but the pool — it’s an infrastructure repair but it’s a regularly recurring repair,” he said. “But I understand this coming year there doesn’t seem to be much other options.”

In January, the board held an initial budget planning meeting in which commissioners voiced their priorities and projects for the year ahead, voting for their preferred priorities using pads of stickers. Most of the top vote-getters were personnel-based expenditures — a part-time clerk for the police department, a director for the Main Street Association, additional police officers and a new public works employee — but Dowling didn’t include those positions in her proposed budget. It’s not advisable to pay for recurring expenses like salary from fund balance, she said, and the board hadn’t indicated a willingness to raise taxes this year. The money wasn’t there to commit to new hires. 

“It’s a tight budget, and I don’t see us being able to afford additional personnel in the upcoming budget,” she said March 28. 

“I say if the priorities cannot be funded, you just don’t do the priorities,” said Commissioner Harold Hensley. “That’s simple.”

“I agree,” said Mayor Lynda Sossamon. 

However, Dowling said, she was going to recommend $6,000 to pay a consultant for the N.C. 107 project — someone who could act as a liaison between the town and affected businesses, answering questions and concerns on the town’s behalf. 

The proposed budget will also include $2,750 to place a pair of interior cameras at Town Hall. In the future, the town hopes to add exterior cameras as well.

During the March 28 meeting the board also explored ways to alleviate some of the burden placed on Dowling, who serves as the Main Street Program coordinator in addition to her duties as town manager. 

“Everything has increased through the years,” said Sossamon. “I’m glad we’re doing all this stuff for the town, but I don’t think she (Dowling) can really keep up with all her work.”

The town already pays someone to coordinate the town’s biggest annual event, Greening Up The Mountains, and this year the proposed budget will include $1,000 to pay a coordinator for the Christmas Parade. 

Nestler suggested not filling a vacant police officer position and instead hiring a fulltime position. The position would serve as the part-time clerk the police department needs to answer its phones and keep the restrooms open to the public, and could also act as the part-time Main Street director. 

Town residents pay county taxes too, Nestler said, and should be entitled to equal service from county deputies as that enjoyed by other county residents. The town should push for more service from county law enforcement to make up for the officer position, he said. 

That idea didn’t gain much traction, with Police Chief Tammy Hooper saying that the sheriff’s office is always willing to help when they’re needed but that town taxes ensure that residents receive a three-minute response time when they call — something the county can’t provide. 

The town is also exploring water quality improvements at Bridge Park and crosswalk enhancements on Main Street. However, it’s unlikely those projects will be completed in this budget year to the extent discussed in earlier planning meetings. 

The Bridge Park project, which stems from a report Equinox Environmental recently completed for the town, could proceed independently of the budget year, as it would be paid for largely through Fisher Creek Fund dollars earmarked for water quality projects. The town wants to explore grant funding as well to better leverage the fund money. 

Public Works Director Jake Scott said May 2 that the nearest crosswalk decoration organization that does the type of faux brick painting the town was interested in is located in New Jersey and wouldn’t travel to Sylva for such a small project. 

“My department can repaint thermoplastic with additional glass beads, which I know is not what anybody wanted, but it is something,” he said. 

The proposed budget will include a 1.9 percent cost-of-living raise for employees and up to a 2.5 percent merit raise, as well as a $150,000 contribution to post-retirement benefits and $100,000 for the separation allowance fund. 

Dowling noted that while revenues are healthy this year, that is likely to change next year as work on N.C. 107 gets underway. The project will deliver a one-two punch to town revenues — the tax base will decrease as right-of-way is acquired, and sales tax will suffer during the construction period since most commercial businesses within city limits are located along the corridor, which will be harder for customers to access during construction. In addition, a significant number of businesses will need to relocate. They won’t necessarily find a new location in Sylva. 

Commissioners didn’t suggest any changes during the May 2 work session, so Dowling said she would present the same document to them when she delivers the proposed budget during the next regular meeting, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9, at town hall. 

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