Aldermen meet this evening to hold a public hearing into how the city will spend taxpayer and user fee money during the next fiscal year.
This is the first budget for the newly coined Board of Aldermen, which met during budget workshops last week that lasted just over 11 hours.
As presented by city staff, the draft budget is fairly status quo and would not result in any additional taxes or fees. However, City Manager Mark Stephens also laid out a number of steps aldermen could take to raise addition revenue to pay for new projects. (Fun fact: “Raise revenue” is boffin-speak for new fees and higher taxes.)
That’s where you come in. This evening’s meeting is when average citizens (that is, those who don’t have board members on speed dial or over for a round of golf) have their say on how the city should spend its money.
During last week’s workshops, which were public but extremely tedious to sit through (video here), board members set up a virtual “parking lot” that includes projects, initiatives and wishes that were not included in the draft budget.
Included in the parking lot are things like $75,000 toward a long-promised community center in the Pleasant Hill community, employee pay raises, aldermen pay raises, and a second animal control officer.
But the biggest thing in the parking lot is $350,000 for six additional firefighter positions that would be based at Fire Station 2 on Thurman Road.
One truck company is based at the station now, but because of OSHA rules, those firefighters can’t enter a burning building until a second truck arrives, usually from the Headquarters Station near downtown New Bern. That could take as long as 10 minutes, an eternity in terms of protecting life and property in a structure fire.
Much of New Bern is well-protected by existing Fire Department manpower and equipment, but the fringes of the city are not. Increasing staffing at Station 2 would plug one gap, but others remain that will have to be addressed over time and as money becomes available.
(A third fire station is on Elizabeth Avenue, covering the north and west ends of New Bern.)
City Hall provides a wide range of services: electric, water and sewer; street maintenance; parks and recreation; law enforcement; fire protection and EMS; and dozens of smaller services.
Keeping it all going while at the same time controlling costs is a challenging thing.
For example, the city operates and maintains 25 parks, many of which are small neighborhood playgrounds. Some of these playgrounds were built in neighborhoods that once crawled with children but are now dominated by senior citizens. City officials estimate about a half dozen city parks go unused.
At the same time, the city has acquired a huge parcel that will become Martin Marietta Park, but work on that won’t commence until the city has secured a $475,000 grant to kickstart plans.
Newly minted City Parks Director Foster Hughes has been rolling out maintenance of city parks, some of which have been sorely neglected for years. Kidsville, a popular wooden playground, has been closed until it can be renovated, for example.
Meanwhile, over in water and sewer, a funny thing happened. The city has been growing at a respectable 2-3 percent, according to city officials, but water usage (and subsequent sewer usage) are declining because of effective water conservation.
At rates seen a decade ago, the city would be looking at expanding water and sewer capacity about now, but conservation has given years of life to existing capacity.
Still, revenue has not increased to match demand. To avoid fee increases, the city will need to maintain its current growth rate of 2-3 percent. A downturn in the economy will force the city to raise fees to make up the difference.
New Bern residents may have noticed a change in their city tap water which, as one resident pointed out vividly but probably hyperbolically, suddenly tastes like shit.
Beginning on April 16 and continuing until June 18, the city changed the disinfectant used in the water treatment process from chloramines to free chlorine.
The city started using chloramines as a secondary disinfectant starting in 2010. This involves adding a small amount of ammonia after water is chlorinated. Compared to free chlorine, chloramines form fewer chemical byproducts, improve taste and odor, and last longer in the water system to prevent bacterial growth.
“It is customary for water systems using chloramines to revert back to free chlorine for six to eight weeks annually,” the city said in a news release. “Free chlorine serves to remove any microbial growth that may have formed while using chloramines, which is a less potent but more stable disinfectant. This is a standard water treatment practice to keep our distribution system clean and free of potentially harmful bacteria throughout the year. During this period, customers may notice more chlorine taste and odor. This will go away immediately once the water system is returned to chloramines.”
Some residents in the Ghent neighborhood are experiencing a doubly refreshing experience with treated water.
“This is likely due to the crews disinfecting the new portions of the water main that have been installed in the area and the extra flushing that is also needed with the new installs. This should be short lived and should be back to normal quickly,” said City Engineer Jordan B. Hughes.
So in the meantime, for the next few weeks, what are your options if you can’t stand the taste of your water? Here are your options:
Pour tap water into an open container and let it sit overnight to let the chlorine dissipate.
Suck it up — unless you’re a dialysis patient or keep fish. In these cases, your water will need to be treated further. See your physician or pet store for further information.
Meanwhile, the water system will perform high velocity flushing of water mains during and shortly after the reversion period, and you may notice some discoloration in your water after the service is performed in your area. If this happens, run a tap in in your house for five minutes to clear your service line. If the discoloration persists, contact the Water Treatment Division at 639-7568.
So what did you do on Jan. 1? City workers spent the day rerouting sewer lines and stabilizing the sink hole in a round-the-clock operation that resulted in no interruption of service and no sewage leaked into the Neuse River just a hundred yards from it.
Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day, a sewer pipe gave up its 56-year battle against erosion and the forces of hydrogen sulfide. It gave way and the ensuing damage left a 50-foot sinkhole near the National Guard Armory on Glenburnie Drive.
This wasn’t any sewer pipe. It was the Grand Central Station of sewer pipes, channeling the entire output of New Bern’s toilets and showers to the wastewater treatment plant at the end of Glenburnie Drive near Glenburnie Park.
City Engineer Jordan Hughes was proud of the city’s response to the crisis, and justifiably so.
Repairing the damage and replacing the old infrastructure, which was installed in 1961, is costing the city $432,000. Aldermen approved the expenditure at their meeting on Tuesday.
“That’s big money, but it was a big problem,” Hughes said.
The failed section of sewer main was one of the last sections remaining from the original 1961 installation. The city would have gotten around to replacing it, too, until events forced their hand.