5 Things I Like about the FY 2016 Budget (and a Few Caveats)

I’m really impressed by Carrboro’s staffing team. Not only do they do their jobs with a passion for our town, but they do what they can to keep our annual budgets as conservative as possible. They chase down grant funds, manage their costs, and find ways to hedge against uncertainty, such as executing fuel contracts or bidding out services. So much of our staff’s work transcends a budget year, from development review to public works projects to planning recreation and parks activities, so it’s fair to say that no department sits on its laurels until the last minute when it comes to budget planning.

Stop reading now if you hate budget talk, and simply take away that I’m proud of the way Town staff conducts day-to-day business with an eye always on the future.

If you actually like budget talk, here are just a few highlights of the proposed FY 2016, $21.5 million budget…and also a few scary things to think about.

A Few of My Favorite Things

Here are five things about the budget that I think are particularly good:

  1. No Tax Increase. In contrast, the Town of Cary is proposing a property tax hike of $.03 per $100 of valuation, in part due to debt service from past bond issues and the loss of the privilege license fee (see #1 under “Scary Things”).
  1. Progress on Housing Wage. In 2013 the Board of Aldermen committed to bring salary levels for all full-time equivalent staff to a “housing wage,” a figure that changes every few years but that represents a wage adequate to afford rents in our area. (Currently the figure is $31,158.) It’s a delicate matter to raise salary ranges, and phasing was the right way to go. Although the Town anticipated achieving the goal in 2020, due to cost of living increases and good budget management, we are able to do more this year than anticipated and will meet our goal three years ahead of schedule.
  1. Police Body Cameras. I know there’s lots of concern about this expenditure. Not only is it a big cost—about $91,000—but many people are concerned about the general efficacy of body cameras, particularly the potential for misuse. It’s a pretty robust debate that will continue, but there is consensus among the Board of Aldermen that the Town must take on the tough challenges necessary to reduce implicit and explicit racial bias in policing (and frankly, in other aspects of our governmental and civic life.) With strong policies in place that have been collaboratively developed with the ACLU, I am comfortable with the risk we are taking by authorizing body cameras. I am also comfortable with de-authorizing them if they prove unhelpful or flat-out harmful. (More on this and related racial bias remedies in a future post.)
  1. Substantial Increase in Affordable Housing Fund. Earlier this year, Carrboro’s Affordable Housing Fund was capitalized at roughly $35,000, barely enough to cover the cost of one mobile home. The Town’s Affordable Housing Strategy is raising the bar, and the Board is up to the challenge. This year the Board will proactively ensure the Fund is worth at least 1 penny on the tax rate, similar to Chapel Hill’s commitment to A Penny for Housing. But we’re doing even more than that. Our plans are to devote the proceeds from the sale of an office condominium to the fund as well (the condo had been purchased to facilitate an economic development deal that has now met its goals.) Once the sale is complete, the Fund will be worth closer to $760,000—a real boost to non-profit developers, providers, and individuals who need help staying in their homes.
  1. Planning Software. OK, I could talk about a whole lot of other things, but this is just a guilty pleasure of mine. At $230,000, development services and permitting software is almost three times the price of police body cameras, but it promises to help the Town streamline these critical processes for developers large and small. As with all things, there will be fits and starts, but this is a no-brainer to facilitate a better process and more reliable communication and accountability.

Some Scary Things

Remember what I said about no tax increase? I’ll be honest, it may not last. Here’s why:

  1. The General Assembly. In all sorts of ways, this elected body is demonstrating that big government is no longer a dirty word for the conservative set. I cannot count on my fingers and toes the roll-backs to local authority that have been sent down from the highest horses, including those that affect our ability to diversify revenues and reduce burdens on property owners. The most recent and scariest proposition is the reallocation of sales taxes. Under this plan, Orange County and Carrboro would lose significant revenues, a loss our town could not absorb (upwards of $1 million by one estimate.)
  1. Chapel Hill Transit is in desperate need of capital investment, as I noted in an earlier post. A projected 4.6% increase in operating costs this year do not take into account the purchases and improvements that will need to be made over the next ten years. Costs of maintaining a highly-functional, safe, goal-oriented transit system will continue rise, and at a much steeper pace, if no new federal, state or private funding can be found to assist. Watch this space for more on that in the coming months.
  1. Stormwater Mitigation. Practically every neighborhood in Carrboro has been affected by flooding over the past few years, particularly older neighborhoods with stormwater infrastructure that pre-dates 1995 Town standards. A recent examination of particular problem areas has flagged what a complicated and expensive issue we are facing as a Town. The flooding problems in question could cost more than $1.6 million to mitigate, on top of numerous other capital improvements already in line for funding…when it’s available. Some people expect there to be cost-sharing by affected homeowners, while others feel a more aggressive effort to address stormwater infrastructure should be developed and floated with a bond issue. Either way, we’ll all feel the financial pressure in future budgets.

Next Steps in Budget Planning

The staff presentation to the Board of Aldermen can be viewed here. A public hearing on the budget is Tuesday, May 26th, with an anticipated final vote scheduled for the June 16th Board meeting. Please weigh in!