Mayor warns about city’s finances

City gives $5,000 to Create Buckhannon, but new taxes likely coming

BUCKHANNON — A funding request from a local organization sparked complex questions about the future of the City of Buckhannon’s finances Thursday.

Against the advice of Mayor David McCauley, Buckhannon City Council voted to give funds to Create Buckhannon that will be used to help put on Festival Fridays, which is set to feature live music and other community-oriented events through Aug. 31 in Jawbone Park.

McCauley told city council members to “brace themselves” after council approved the $5,000 request, saying the city could struggle to cover its expenses over the next 12 months. New first due area fire fees, storm sewer fees and a municipal sales tax have been mentioned as possible ways to fill the hole.

Following the 4-2 vote, the mayor said he wasn’t opposed to sponsoring Festival Fridays per se, but that delivering one donation
to an outside entity could open
“Pandora’s box” as other organizations also seek contributions.

The city has been wrestling with its finances following a promise that the city’s general fund will pay the Sanitary Department $100,000 every fiscal year for handling storm sewer functions.

The City of Buckhannon is comprised of five separate enterprise funds: the general fund, Sanitary Board, Waste Board, Water Board and Consolidated Public Works Board.

City officials are so concerned about Buckhannon’s stagnant finances that at its last meeting in June, council voted to form a revenue review committee that will examine where costs can be cut and where taxes and fees can be increased.

Councilman CJ Rylands, the executive director of Create Buckhannon, explained the request.

“The budget for Festival Fridays is a little over $15,000 this year,” Rylands said, “and some are interested in adding a few other events. It’s a big help. We do get a lot of from fundraising, but it’s not enough.”

Councilman Robbie Skinner said Festival Fridays consistently attracts visitors and residents to the downtown area throughout the summer and is analogous to the city’s investment in the West Virginia Strawberry Festival Association.

“I would like to remind council that we also typically invest in the West Virginia Strawberry Festival,” Skinner said. “That is another large event the city benefits from.”

McCauley noted the city had yet to set aside a line item for sponsorship of the 2019 WVSF in its 2018-2019 budget.

“Well, but we typically help the Strawberry Festival, and this (Festival Fridays) is an ongoing event that brings people to downtown all summer long from outside the community, and I would motion that we approve this,” Skinner replied. Councilwoman Mary Albaugh seconded Skinner’s motion.

Councilman David Thomas said he thinks the city will get more “bang for its buck” from investing in Create Buckhannon and Festival Fridays than from paying for fireworks, as it voted to do at a meeting in June.

“I said Create Buckhannon is all the time in the summer, where fireworks is just one day, and you get a lot more bang for the buck with Create Buckhannon,” Thomas said.

McCauley told council the city’s general fund will owe the Sanitary Board $200,000 that it doesn’t currently have in hand by the end of the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

“I’m not going to say anything averse to that at all,” McCauley said. “I would just remind the council that our first revenue review committee meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, July 18 at 3 p.m. … and we’ll then bring those recommendations back to the full council for consideration.”

The mayor said instituting a new revenue stream from which the city could fund external entities’ requests could take months. In fact, money from the new source — first due area fire fees, storm sewer fees, a municipal sales tax or otherwise — may not be available until Jan. 1, 2019.

Should the city opt to pass a sales tax, the process could be even more lengthy because such a change would require W.Va. Municipal Home Rule Board approval, McCauley said.

“So the earliest that we’re going to be able to have monies for the Strawberry Festival, for Festival Fridays, those various things, we’re probably looking at the first of the year, because it’s already July 5,” McCauley said. “If we choose to go with a comprehensive sales tax, whether it be a half percent or the full 1 percent, that must go before the home rule board, so that slows things down an additional period of time.”

Thomas said he didn’t think questions regarding the overall ways the city might bolster its revenue stream were necessarily relevant to Create Buckhannon’s request.

“But David, I don’t think the question about money for Create Buckhannon or money for the Strawberry Festival is, ‘What is the main thrust of the revenue?’ I don’t view it that way. The things you just listed are much more for the totality of the city.”

McCauley replied, “My point is, we have not budgeted $5,000 in the 2018-2019 budget for Festival Fridays, and if we’re going to open up that bit of a Pandora’s box, you know the other agencies that sought funding are going to be lining up for theirs and pretty soon, you’re not talking about $2,500 or $5,000; you’re talking about $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 and we don’t have that in our current budget. We don’t have the kind of funds to cover all of the folks that are going to be looking for funding.”

“You can approve the $5,000 tonight, but brace yourselves that there are going to be others (groups) coming to the July 19 meeting to seek funding,” the mayor added. “Is that the path we want to start down?”

McCauley said the city is already in debt to the Sanitary Board.

“We are already $100,000 in the hole to the Sanitary Board for storm sewer monies that we were supposed to pay during the 2017-2018 year,” he said. “We haven’t paid that yet…And we haven’t allocated it. Soon, we will be another $100,000 behind on what city is supposed to pay sanitary board for storm sewer functions promised for 2018-2019.

“That’s my point. You pay a couple of quarters out and it’s no big deal and pretty soon, you got no bills in your wallet.”

Skinner suggested council vote on the matter. Rylands, as the executive director of Create Buckhannon, abstained due to a conflict of interest, and Skinner, Albaugh, Thomas and councilwoman Pam Cuppari voted to contribute the $5,000.

McCauley and city recorder Colin Reger voted against the request.

On the heels of the vote, Thomas said he thought the city was wise to make the investment.

“I think it’s something we should do, and I’m willing to take heat from 25 other requests for money as far as what happens the next couple months,” he said.

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