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.