By ROBERT LEWIS
Carolina Beach Town Councilman
This is only the second time I have participated in the budget process in our local town government and the spending trends and the reluctance to make tough decisions and budget cuts by council member’s continues to concern me.
We again are looking at an annual deficit in our general fund due to what I consider unnecessary wasteful spending, which is correctable using solid financial and business sense. Our town continues to spend more money than we can generate from property taxes, sales taxes and grants.
If our town were a private business spending more money than we had in income we would end up in bankruptcy or closing the doors.
In local government, as we all know, when your public officials allow wasteful and excessive spending the easy answer is just raise taxes either today or some time in the future.
This is not an acceptable business practice by anyone’s standards and surely not mine. To balance our budget for 2012-2013 our town manager is proposing to take around $350,000.00 out of our general fund reserves (Money needed and set aside by previous administrations to prepare for recovery from a potential natural disaster).
Just turn on your TV and you see all the natural disasters happening around the country and you only wonder how long our luck will hold out. If you talk to any of our former Carolina Beach council members or Mayors I would bet they would tell you that reducing the reserve fund balance to balance the budget is a dangerous policy.
This is the second year in a row that council has had to dig into reserve funds to balance the general fund budget so our reserve continues to dwindle.
As you may of read in the local media our town manager has presented that he is not proposing a property tax increase to balance our 2012-2013 budget but includes with that statement that we will have to have a tax increase next year based on his forecasts of expenditures.
In council’s recent budget discussions there were clearly areas where the town could cut costs and still maintain the same quality of service levels but today there are only a couple members on council who are prepared to make the tough decisions to make this happen.
One of those individuals is long time council member and current Mayor Pro Tem, Pat Efrid. I have to commend Pat, as she was a key voice in helping move council toward putting out a bid for legal services and advertising for a full time town attorney in an effort to cut in half the current excessive $200,000+ annual spending on legal fees.
We currently are budgeting $150,000.00 for legal services but the trend line would indicate that we are going to spend another $200,000 in budget year 2012-2013 if we do not make a change in the near future. I really appreciate working with a council member like Pat Efrid who has devoted over 30 years to public service in our community.
As a council member I feel I was elected to office to ensure that all tax dollars are spent wisely and to make the tough decisions to make that happen.
Our state representatives are making tough decisions and making huge cuts in the state budget to balance their budget.
Our county officials are doing the same. In fact New Hanover County is proposing to make significant reductions in personnel and facilities in our education system; an area where you would think we could not afford to cut teachers without sacrificing the quality of our children’s education. Then you turn to our local town budget and
for whatever reasons we cannot get agreement to make the necessary cuts to balance our budget without taking money out of our reserve funds.
I have tried to make inroads with council members by identifying huge opportunities that still exist for budget cuts in the current proposed budget for 2012-2013.
I outlined a number of budget cuts I would make today to get closer to a balanced budget without taking so much money out of our general fund reserves.
For example research shows that many of our surrounding communities spend a lot less money to fund their planning and zoning department than we do at Carolina Beach.
For the second straight year the proposed budget for the planning and zoning department is almost 100% higher than the cost of the department during the building and real estate boom years of 2004 and 2005.
The number of building permits, general permits and other department demands are significantly lower today than they were in 2004 and 2005 yet costs are significantly higher.
This clearly is not responsible fiscal management. I continue to point out the fact that we the only town within 50 miles to have a GIS technician position factored into our annual budget for planning and zoning.
New Hanover County offers this service to all the other beach communities. We also have two senior planners, which doesn’t make sense for a small town our size with little commercial development in progress.
In council’s discussion last week on the planning department I was surprised to hear another member of council who is a contractor voicing his concerns over how long it takes to get a simple building permit out of the planning department.
It makes you wonder who is manning the store because I cannot imagine we would have so many building permits being issued that we cannot handle the volume with all the employees in this department.
A number of local builders have told me that it takes weeks to get a permit in Carolina Beach when it only takes days to get permits from New Hanover county or a day or so when they work with a town like Leland.
In presenting my recommendation on reducing the staff within our planning and zoning department
I used Leland as an example. Leland covers a larger footprint than Carolina Beach and their population growth and commercial and residential building boom continues today at a rate more than 3 times that of Carolina Beach.
Yet, Leland only has two people to man its planning department a senior planner and a person who does both planning and zoning enforcement and their budget for planning and zoning is almost $300,000.00 less than ours in Carolina Beach.
In managing their town more like a business Leland has chosen to invest in building inspectors who pay for themselves versus
having taxpayers pay for a huge planning and zoning department.
Leland generates enough revenue from impact fees, inspection fees and permits to more than pay for the investment in personnel.
Another efficiency strategy implemented by Leland’ town manager and council was to have the town eliminate most of their internal paper processes and record keeping by converting paper records to electronic format.
Leland is generating huge savings while providing their residents with a much more efficient way of finding documents and records.
While our employees spend hours to find a record or to move paper from one person to another around town hall, Leland employees are accessing records in seconds electronically via their PC’s, email and shareware software.
Where Carolina Beach stores boxes and boxes of paper records in town hall and another town building, Leland has its records stored on a hard drive in a computer and has backup and restore capability with an off site data center for disaster recovery.
We in Carolina Beach are just rolling the dice in hope we do experience a natural disaster or fire, which could destroy all our paper documents in town hall and our storage area.
Another opportunity to cut the budget that I continue to stress is the excessive cost of our parking management company who charges us close to $300,000.00 to collect our parking meter, parking lot and Freeman Park fees and deposit them in the bank.
On top of that $300,000.00 we provide them a pickup truck, two golf carts, scooters, uniforms and the list goes on. Just look at last weeks news and you can read
where the council members of the City of Wilmington are concerned about the costs and collection rates associated with this same parking management company, Lanier.
Again this is a service, which we could manage internally with town employees, and based on
my research and that of a number of other successful business minds we could save the town over $100,000.00 annually.
We also pay a landscaping service over $200,000.00 annually to cut our grass in the community. It seems to me that landscaping services could be handled internally as well and you would think we could manage this service while saving considerable money.
As an experienced manager and business owner I have made my own observations over the past 18 months about the productivity and efficiency of our town employees, our town management team and the overall productivity of our staff.
I must admit I am impressed with some of our department heads and their employee teams, especially those handling our
public safety but have questions about the leadership and the productivity of others and I think in some cases our residents are being short changed when it comes to getting a good value for their tax dollars.
I feel there are areas today where we can make additional cuts and come up with over $350,000.00 in cuts to balance our budget.
It is very easy to say we will not have to raise taxes this year but the reality of that statement is that we will have to borrow against our future to make that happen.
These opinions are my own and do not reflect those of anyone else on council.
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