City needs additional funding for stormwater projects

BUCKHANNON — The City of Buckhannon is searching for new sources of revenue after city council learned that it needs at least another $100,000 to effectively manage its stormwater system.

Discussion about where to find the necessary funds led to questions Thursday about several controversial topics, including the implementation of a municipal sales tax and how police officers’ use of professional discretion has led to fewer traffic citations, and hence, less revenue in the city’s general fund.

The discussion got underway at council’s meeting Thursday after sanitary superintendent Erasmo Rizo told council the sanitary department had exceeded the $50,000 budgeted for stormwater management in February. The fiscal year doesn’t end until June 30.

In March 2017, council passed an ordinance transferring the responsibility of managing stormwater from the street department to the sanitary/sewer department.

Despite exceeding the $50,000 allocated for stormwater management in the 2017-2018 budget, “we haven’t even started to scratch the surface of larger projects that are on our list,” Rizo said.

“We have significant 48-inch and 58-inch culverts that we need to install or finish completing for past projects,” Rizo said. “A year ago, council elected to be proactive in stormwater management [by transferring the responsibility to the sewer department], and I think it’s a great decision, especially since 30 percent of the city is located in the floodplain.

“But we were given $50,000 from the city, and we’ve exceeded that budget as of February – essentially, we’re halfway through the year, and we are already past that budget.”

Rizo asked what kind of funding the sanitary department could expect for stormwater management projects in the future. Currently, only $50,000 is budgeted in the sanitary department for stormwater management in the 2018-2019 budget, finance and administrative director Amberle Jenkins said.

“What can we expect?” Rizo asked. “We’re not going to stop doing resolutions to the complaints that come across our desk, but obviously, we can’t do the projects that have significant costs associated with them at this point.”

Rizo said some municipalities tack on a $3-$5 per month stormwater fee to fund managing stormwater system operations.

Mayor David McCauley said it’s imperative that council find funding for managing its stormwater system if it wants to undertake that task effectively.

“I projected when I did a memo (about transferring stormwater management from the street department to the sanitary department) in January 2017 that we needed to be looking at $125,000 to $150,000 a year, and we appropriated $50,000, so they’re essentially $75,000 to $100,000 behind right now where we wanted them to be,” the mayor said. “We’ve got to look at something to generate that revenue and discharge that important function.”

When Jenkins reviewed the nuts and bolts of the city’s proposed $4.4 million budget following Rizo’s report, questions erupted about where the revenue to fund stormwater operations —and other functions — might be found. Those discussions focused on raising fees or taxes rather than moving money from elsewhere in the existing budget.

Councilman David Thomas highlighted the fact that the city’s general revenue fund budget —combined with the Consolidated Public Works Board budget — is expected to amass $130,000 less during the 2018-2019 fiscal year because fewer parking tickets and traffic citations are being issued.

“That’s a significant hit,” Thomas said. “I personally have issues with that … where we do warnings versus citations. I think if you’re on your cellphone, you ought to get a darn citation … same with no seatbelt or going through a stop sign. There’s a point where we have to philosophically decide as a community, what do we give warnings for and what do we give tickets for?”

Councilman CJ Rylands — who has, in the past, urged the police department to exercise discretion when deciding whether to issue a citation or warning — said public safety is the key factor.

“I think public safety is the consideration,” Rylands said. “If we’re using public safety individuals as a revenue generation stream, I think that was erroneous from the start. So this money (the $130,000) that is no longer there, I don’t believe it was an appropriate stream to be considered.”

Thomas countered, “I don’t agree with you. I think that if a person is doing something against state law, you don’t give them a warning.”

Rylands replied, “So if you take that perspective, there’s technology where … we could have an independent contractor come in and install cameras at the stoplights. And maybe even on your street. And if you roll through a stop sign, they’ll just mail you a ticket, and it’ll kick some funds back to us.”

Thomas said he recalled a meeting at which police chief Matt Gregory “got a lot of grief” because of his officers issuing too many citations, as opposed to warnings.

But Rylands defended the importance of using discretion, referencing the difference between the number of citations issued by the Upshur County Sheriff’s Department and State Police — 381 — versus the city police, which totaled 2,300.

McCauley said there has undoubtedly been a “philosophical change” encouraged by council.

“You create a more welcoming, inviting community as a consequence of which people don’t see Buckhannon like the old Summersville (area) practice,” McCauley said, referencing the notorious speed trap on Route 19. “Buckhannon is a point of destination, and I think that’s what we’re trying to create.”

But Thomas said the money to fund city operations has to come from somewhere.

“I don’t have a problem with trying something different, but I do have a problem when we have terrible trend lines in the municipality right now,” he said. “We talked to Ras (Erasmo Rizo) at length about a fee. That’s going to be a headline in the paper at some point in time — ‘Council wants to get more money from you.’”

McCauley replied, “So, should we get the fee for our storm sewer [operations] through a storm sewer fee or shake people down more for rolling through a stop sign or talking on a cellphone and get it that way? That’s what it comes down to. You’ve got one ladle — which well are you going to draw from?”

Thomas said he was in favor of instituting a stormwater management system fee, and maybe even a streets fee.

“I get more complaints about our streets,” Thomas said. “We probably need a street fee. We know at some point in time we’re going to have to increase our revenue base because we can’t continue to operate the way we are.”

McCauley said 37 municipalities, both larger and smaller than Buckhannon, have adopted a municipal sales tax.

“I’m not advocating that tonight, but it’s a measure that is actually far fairer that the B&O (business and occupation) tax, because if I go out and spend $100 at Walmart, if [the city] had half a percent, 50 cents is added to my bill, and Walmart is the collection agency for us,” he said.

McCauley said a sales tax would bring in revenue not only from city residents who shop at Walmart, but also from county residents and out-of-county residents who buy there.

“If you’re talking about a tax that is the fairest, and if you’re talking about a tax that would have the least direct impact on the citizens of Buckhannon who we are elected to serve, that’s probably the best way to look at subsidizing some of these needs that we have as a community,” the mayor said.

Rylands disagreed.

“What’s the difference between writing a citation to get the money for the storm sewer or taxing purchases at Walmart to pay for the storm sewer?” he wanted to know. “I’m much more in favor of charging people their responsible amount for what they’re creating … when you go to sales tax, you’re adding to the formula of increasing the cost of products and services within city limits as opposed to without.”

While the B&O tax only applies to large businesses with revenues in excess of $1 million, a sales tax would also apply to small businesses within Buckhannon’s city limits. The current B&O tax also includes revenues from out-of-city shoppers as well.

Councilman Robbie Skinner said instituting a sales tax could be an incentive for businesses to locate outside of the corporate limits. Addressing Thomas’ earlier concerns about the proportion of warnings to citations city police issue, Skinner said, “We encourage our officers to use professional discretion. We did not say, ‘If you see something, you cannot [ticket] someone.’ Professional discretion is what we encourage.”

Skinner and Thomas agreed council needs to hash out a three to five-year comprehensive financial plan that identifies streams of revenue. One idea Skinner suggested council look into is implementing a fire fee to be paid by the residents in the department’s “first due area” that would specifically benefit the Buckhannon Fire Department.

McCauley said council wasn’t likely to solve the conundrum in one meeting.

There’s two ways to satisfy your budgetary needs,” the mayor said. “We either cut expenses or you add revenue, and sometimes it’s a little combination of both.”

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