City looking at stable budget

BUCKHANNON — Although the City of Buckhannon isn’t struggling financially in the present, the mayor and city council members on Thursday emphasized the need to seek out new sources of revenue for financial security in the future.

At Tuesday’s working session, finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins presented a first draft of the City of Buckhannon’s general fund budget for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which is balanced at $4.3 million, down slightly from the 2017-2018 budget — currently set at $4.4 million.

Jenkins said changes to the proposed budget are likely inevitable, given that there are several unknowns, such as whether and if the city’s health insurance premiums will increase.

The general fund budget, preliminarily set at $4,384,230, is due to the state auditor’s office by March 28 and does not include the budgets of the city’s four utility boards — the water board, waste board, Consolidated Public Works board and sanitary/sewer board. It is required by state law to be balanced, meaning revenues must match expenditures.

Mayor David McCauley said that while the city is doing well, it’s crucial to take a conservative approach when predicting budget numbers.

“The city is in many ways thriving, but the general fund has been pretty much the same — stagnant — for three or four years,” the mayor said. “There are some things coming down the pike — I don’t want to get too particular — we have one substantial new business that will be opening (Harbor Freight discount tool supplier). How well will that business perform?”

The mayor estimated that if Harbor Freight brings in $15 to $20 million in revenue annually, the city will receive 1 percent of that in the form of B&O — business and occupation — tax.

“That’s $150,000 to $200,000,” he said. “The other thing I think that we will see is a good spike for the next two years with activity with the Atlantic Coast Pipeline project, and there appears to be some resurgence in the natural gas industry with the drilling locally as well.”

But the city shouldn’t bet on that revenue, McCauley said.

“The last thing in the world you want to do is to get into a horrible situation where you’re faced with stopping projects or contemplating laying people off,” he said. “We’ve got to plan conservatively, and that’s what it’s all about. I don’t want it to be perceived as a doom-and-gloom kind of scenario. It’s just more of the same.”

Councilman David Thomas said council is likely to face some difficult decisions in the future.

“As David said, in the next 18-24 months, we’re going to have to address some very critical issues as far as revenue enhancement. We’re going to have to make some very difficult decisions that are going to [upset people]. We’re not growing.”

One area in which revenue funds are significantly down are court costs, basic fees and police citation fees because of fewer tickets being written, Jenkins said. While the city has averaged $130,000 in those costs and fees since 2013, Jenkins estimated the city will only bring in $51,000 over the 2018-2019 fiscal year — about $79,000 less than in previous years. Police chief Matt Gregory, who attended Tuesday’s meeting, said the decrease was directly related to fewer traffic tickets being written due to police officers exercising more discretion.

The police department takes up the biggest chunk of the proposed budget. For next year, Gregory requested $1.07 million.

Jenkins said she did not incorporate any requested employee raises into the budget, with the exception of increases — required by civil service statutes — for two police officers who will be testing for the position of corporal. The street department had requested $10,000 in raises, while the fire department in its $706,900 budget asked for a 20-cent raise for the three officers and a 35-cent raise for firefighters. The only spike in fire department budget salaries Jenkins incorporated, however, was a hike in the salary of the fire chief — a search for the best qualified candidate is currently under way — from $56,000 to $60,000. Interim fire chief J.B. Kimble had requested the new chief be compensated $62,500.

Councilman CJ Rylands asked Jenkins what she thought about adding in raises. In his “state of the city” speech in January, McCauley said he hoped to increase the salaries of all full time employees by 50 cents an hour — increases Jenkins said there is currently no money for.

“My personal opinion is, I feel like I’m getting by with this budget and I got it to balance without all of those things (including raises) I mentioned to you,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t put any pay increases in there at all unless it was like a corporal testing increase that we have to do because of our code.

“You want to be careful about giving a certain department an increase and then not giving your street department an increase or your office workers an increase.”

McCauley did note that raises for certain departments — when not given to all departments — could cause divisiveness.

“It’s not going to happen on my watch,” he said.

Councilman Robbie Skinner, however, observed firefighters — like police officers — have embarked on an accreditation process through the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. Gregory has requested to hire a second part-time officer, which would help the police department absorb the additional administrative duties that accompany the Commission on Accreditation on Law Enforcement accreditation process, according to the chief and McCauley.

“We’re asking more of our police department through the CALEA process, and we’re asking more of our fire department going through the accreditation process,” Skinner said.

Skinner also said he understood Thomas’ concerns about future revenue.

“I think the point Dave  Thomas is trying to make is that our arrow is not going up in terms of number of residents, number of businesses, number of areas in which we can get revenue from,” Skinner said. “We have to think long term. We have to think about ways to get new revenue if and when something changes.”

McCauley said the city —which will likely enter the new fiscal year with a balance on hand of $650,000 — should be struggling to allocate its money.

“We’re not running a business here,” the mayor said. “We don’t have shareholders. We don’t have to make a profit. Government should struggle to make ends meet. We shouldn’t have money hand over fist. This is a good exercise because we have got to keep things tight. It’s not our money.”

Although the city has allocated $30,000 to the Upshur County Development Authority, $15,000 to the county airport, $10,000 to Country Roads Transit and $5,000 to the Upshur County Health Department, it has yet to commit funds to other outside organizations, including the W.Va. Strawberry Festival Association and Festival Fridays.

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