Salisbury Council Irons Out Budget; Mayor Vows Veto

SALISBURY – The City Council’s changes to the mayor’s proposed budget has slammed the brakes on a proposed tax rate hike, but a mayoral veto looms ahead.

The budget reflected an increase in a number of revenues combined with a recent discount in workers compensation insurance in the amount of $426,000, which allowed the council to keep the property tax rate the same. The budget sets property tax at 81.9 cents per $100 of assessed value of all real property versus the 83.4 cent rate the mayor’s budget proposed.

Mayor Jim Ireton was not present during the budget discussion but it was said that the mayor was not aware of the discount in workers compensation when his budget was submitted or he would have not increased the property tax rate.

Council President Terry Cohen highlighted some of the main points in the budget proposed on Tuesday evening, as well as addressed a list of Mayor Jim Ireton’s concerns with the changes made.

“There were a number of things that council went over, and Ms. Moore [Acting Director of Internal Services] was very helpful in helping us identify underestimated revenues,” Cohen said.

First, a $130,000 increase in revenue was identified in admissions and amusements tax now that the city has paid off a bill owed to the state.

“We had a situation a few years ago where the state informed us due to the mistake of their own that they had given us too much money and that we owed it back to the state so we worked out an installment agreement … so what we found was we actually have a lot more in the admissions and amusements tax revenues,” Cohen said. “They were very understated as the result of the end of that payback period.”

The budget also includes revenue of $124,000 that the county owes to the city. The bill is a result of the city not reporting land annexation to Comcast and those cable franchise fees were given to the county instead.

The next item was the majority of the council decided to give city employees a $250 bonus versus the 3-percent decrease in health insurance costs the mayor proposed.

“One of our concerns there was we hate to give something and take it away the next year,” Cohen said. “We are still expecting another bad year, but we wanted to do something to recognize that all city employees have done their best to contribute to what was a huge discount in our expenses on the workers comp, so we wanted to make sure that all employees, whether they had health insurance or not through the city, had something to recognize that effort.”

Another change to the budget was an additional $40,000 was added to the city attorney’s fees once an analysis was done on the account and an average amount was figured.

“We now have the average over the last several years and therefore it made sense to budget accordingly and the other members of the council agreed,” Cohen said.

One of the last items highlighted was an increase in revenue of $22,500 from fire department calls for service. The money derives from insurance payments to the fire department when ambulances or fire trucks are dispatched to accident scenes.

Councilwoman Laura Mitchell stated that she is not in favor of the budget based on the increases in revenues, which she thinks are overestimated.

“The bottom line for me is that I feel the revenues are greatly overstated,” she said. “I don’t think they are reasonable for a number of reasons.”

Mitchell did not agree that the $124,000 the county owes the city should be included as revenue because there is no guarantee the county will pay the bill. She was also against the $250 employee bonus, which is a $97,000 expense, and favored the 3-percent decrease in health insurance instead, which is a $77,000 expense.

Council Vice President Deborah Campbell disagreed that the revenues were overstated and responded that the amounts were based on historical data that the city’s professional staff analyzed.

“It escapes me how you have a council that can take the mayor’s budget, and based on history we cut very, very, very little from this budget,” she said. “Could I have gone in there with a sharp pencil and done a lot more cutting? You bet your bottom dollar I could have but that would have ensured a mayoral veto, and that wouldn’t have been good for anybody. … The best message that we can send to the public of this city is there is no tax increase …”

The council became weary that the mayor would veto the budget, which he did last year. The council would need a majority vote to override a mayoral veto.

With Campbell, Cohen, and Spies in favor of the budget and Mitchell against it, the decision fell on Councilwoman Eugenie Shields.

“For the citizens and employees I agree with not increasing the tax and I can live with the $250 bonus, I do have concerns over whether the county council is going to give us the money and I am hoping that they do … but in all honestly I will support this budget simply because I think it is the right thing to do,” Shields said.

The council voted 4-1, Mitchell opposed, to approve the budget along with its changes, and setting the property tax rate at .819 cents.

Ireton has pledged to veto the budget.