Property taxes will stay steady but spending for certain types of projects will shrink if the Wake Forest Board of Commissioners approves the proposed budget presented by town staff at the board’s work session Tuesday.
The $50.2 million budget restores full merit-based raises for town employees and plans for seven new hires, mostly in the public safety department. The town’s property tax rate will remain at 51 cents per $100 of assessed property value, the rate since 2009.
That’s made possible by major spending reductions in other areas, especially capital improvements. Projects from the town’s building wish list, such as a band shelter at Joyner Park, have been put on hold. The town also saw an unprecedented estimated 4.3 percent decrease in its health insurance premiums.
Last year, Town Manager Mark Williams told the board that the 2011-12 budget of $47.8 million was the toughest he had seen in his 18-year career.
“Well, it’s now 19 years, and I’ve seen a tougher one,” he said Tuesday. “But it’s balanced...and we’ve done a lot with a little.”
The public has a chance to comment on the budget in a hearing scheduled for 7 p.m. May 15 at Town Hall. The board plans to discuss the budget in more detail in a late-May work session in hopes of approving the final version at its June 19 meeting.
In Williams’ budget message, he says he sees the town entering a “new reality” that will mean re-evaluating staffing needs, frequency of service delivery and revenue growth projections over the next several years.
For example, the town’s “explosive” growth in the late 1990s and early 2000s had the town comparing itself to other towns to determine the size of its police force. Now, with growth drastically slowed, the town needs to measure its staffing levels against its actual needs, Williams said.
Mayor Vivian Jones says she believes Williams is “right on target.”
“We need to be aware that the government can’t do everything,” Jones said. “We’ve spent a number of years wanting the government to do things for us, but we’ve reached a point now where we need to think about it harder.”
Jones said she’s disappointed that the town will not be hiring a cultural arts program coordinator, a position that has stayed frozen for five years. However, she believes the budget is solid and won’t be difficult to pass.
The planned seven new hires for next year comprise an IT analyst, a facilities maintenance specialist, a telecommunicator, a crime analyst and three police officers. The town is also bringing back full merit raises for employees, cut in half last year to balance the budget, as well as funds for workers with growing experience or education in the public safety, inspections and electric departments, frozen for three years.
‘Astonishing’ rate drop
Town staff credit the health insurance rate decrease, achieved without switching insurance providers, to employees’ adherence to wellness plans that offer extra time off to wellness winners. Commissioner Frank Drake called the rate drop “astonishing.”
“That’s definitely not the trend,” Commissioner Zachary Donahue said.
The single biggest-ticket item in the budget is a $948,535 payment on three $6.3 million street improvement projects.
That amount will decrease each year as the town gets closer to paying off the debt, Finance Director Aileen Staples said.
The recession took longer to hit Wake Forest, which saw 14 percent budget growth in June 2009 and 9 percent growth in June 2010. Then the numbers plummeted, with a .36 percent growth rate in June 2011 and a “minuscule” .44 percent for this June, Williams said.
The new budget is about financial sustainability, Williams said: a town living within its financial means to rebuild its fund balance – like a savings account to ensure the town can pay its bills in case of crisis – which the board has chosen to dip into in recent years. Now, it’s all about prioritizing and asking department heads what they can and can’t live without.
“This budget emphasizes the wise use of our resources to protect our infrastructure and our dedicated employees,” Williams said in his budget statement.