The city's Board of Mayor and Aldermen danced around the idea of proposing a property tax increase on Tuesday, but voted in the end to pass on second and final reading a $50 million 2017-18 fiscal year budget that keeps the rate at 75 cents per $100 of assessed value.
As they did on first reading May 23, leaders also voted to raise the annual garbage collection fee by $21 to $284 a year. They also discussed borrowing more than $5 million in the form of a bond for several items not funded in the budget like the purchase of two new fire engines, money to re-construct a fire station on Free Hill Road, and for additional paving.
In the end, several amendments to the budget passed - including funding for an additional police officer; funds to widen Walton Ferry Road to Nokes Drive; a staff vehicle for the fire department; two additional public works department employees, and more money for an economic and community development position.
The amendments were made after Mayor Jamie Clary revealed that the city has $915,000 more than it thought it had when leaders first voted on the budget three weeks earlier.
"Through the help of Alderman Steve Brown and [Finance Director] Ron Minnicks we found $915,000 we feel like we don't have to spend," said Clary. He explained that the difference came from unfilled salaries - typically promotions - in the police and fire departments.
The discovery means the city's expenditures will decrease overall by $915,511, he added.
"It's a good problem to have," said Clary
Brown pointed out that that the city is not cutting employees or expenditures.
"We had a glitch in the system so we got a windfall, that's basically what that comes down to," said Brown who sits on the city's Public Safety Committee. "The community got a windfall."
However, board members then moved to spend much of that money - leaving a general fund balance of $2.9 million. The general fund is the city's operating account. The city does not have a reserve, or rainy day fund.
The spending did not include, however, a proposal by Clary to increase library funding in order to keep the facility open on Fridays and a couple hours longer on Saturday.
Clary had proposed that the city give $68,000 more to Sumner County, who operates the facility to fund the extra hours. That proposal died for lack of a second May 23 with some aldermen saying longer library hours didn't seem to be an issue with constituents. Others said it was the county's job to fund the facility, not the city. Following the meeting three weeks ago, Clary urged residents on his campaign email list to contact aldermen and let them know they wanted more funding. He also circulated a petition on social media.
On Tuesday, Clary proposed the city pitch in $34,000 and request $34,000 from Sumner County government. That motion failed 6 to 6.
At the beginning of Tuesday's meeting Public Works Director Chip Moore expressed concerns about the city's low general fund and how it could affect several projects his department has planned over the next three years, including needed road improvements.
"What Chip is trying to say is that our habits, specifically dealing with public works issues - we're going to have to change, because to be quite frank with everyone, the money is just not going to be there for us," said Public Works Committee Chairman Mark Skidmore. "And so I guess in the coming months and years we're going to have to figure out as a board how we're going to approach projects that we have that are becoming overwhelming. We have some huge projects coming and we're going to have to figure out how we're going pay for them."
Although no one made an official motion to raise the property tax rate, several aldermen admitted the city seemed to be setting itself up for one next year, which will also be an election year.
"I understand the desire to say we're not raising taxes," said Ward 2 Alderman Scott Sprouse. "But I know how much on a shoestring we operate this city and I know how tight we keep the general fund to the point where it has not grown proportionally with the size of the city budget."
Sprouse said another disaster like the May, 2010 flood could make the city cash poor. He also said he's bothered by borrowing so much money in the form of a bond - particularly for recurring items.
"Borrowed money is not free money. It's not avoiding taking more money from taxpayers," he said. "If this board does not have the will to properly fund recurring maintenance, particularly with infrastructure in this city... this year, a non-election year, I don't see how this board will have the will or interest next year when borrowing money will be harder.
"The oath that we take talks about what we do... and part of doing the job of (an) alderman is making the tough decisions," he added.
While aldermen seemed to agree the city is strapped for cash, no one proposed cutting proposed expenditures or raising the tax rate.
The budget as amended passed 10 to 2 with Sprouse and Clary voting no. Ward 3 Alderman Angie Hedberg did not attend the meeting. A vote to keep the tax rate the same passed 8 to 4 with Clary, Sprouse, Darrell Woodcock and Pat Campbell voting no.
After two readings, the city's fiscal year 2017-18 budget includes:
*A .5 percent cost of living increase for city employees
*A 2.5 percent step increase for city employees
*$1.2 million for supplemental paving
*$125,000 for the construction of a horse barn for the police department
*$25,000 to help Savely Court residents garner FEMA funding for recurring drainage issues
*$18,000 for the resurfacing of four tennis courts in Memorial Park
*$15,000 for repairs to a boat dock in Mallard Point Park
*$25,000 for a maintenance building for the parks department
*$50,000 for a skid steer for the public works department
*$220,000 for five new police cars
*$34,000 for the widening of Walton Ferry Road to Nokes Drive
*$101,885 for two additional public works department employees
*$55,000 an additional police officer
*$15,000 to the city's ECD budget
Although not part of the budget, possible bond items that have been discussed include:
*$2.4 million - Construction of a replacement fire hall on Free Hill Road
*$850,000 - Supplemental paving
*$120,000 - Inline hockey resurfacing
*$130,000 - Mary's Magical Place, a playground for special needs children and adults
*$880,000 - The purchase of two fire engines
*$620,000 - Sanders Ferry walking trail
*$540,000 - Drake's Creek Road widening project
*$128,000 - Drake's Creek Stop 30 widening