by David Anderson
While the city of Kinston expects to meet its financial obligations for 2012, poor economic conditions in future years could force municipal officials to take drastic steps to balance their budget, provide services at their current level and take on critical projects that have languished for years because of a lack of money.
“I’m really concerned about the 2013 year, the 2014 year,” said Councilman Will Barker.
Barker cast the lone dissenting vote against the city’s $99 million budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The council voted 4-1 in favor of it.
“I think it comes back to the community understanding the cost of services, and determining the cost of services you need to have,” he said.
The budget includes no change in property taxes or electric rates, but water rates will increase by 7 percent and wastewater rates by 5 percent. Environmental Services rates will increase by 2.3 percent.
Property tax revenue has increased from last year, along with sales tax revenue, but the latter is still not at the level it was four years ago, before the economy crashed.
City Manager Scott Stevens had to take $170,000 from the fund balance, or savings account, to balance the general fund.
The budget adds five positions to the city payroll next year, including a gang officer and a second park ranger for the Recreation Department, but residents are also clamoring for a larger police force, street repairs and improved housing.
Carol Tokarski lives in the Mitchelltown neighborhood where two homicides occurred this month, including a law enforcement officer. She spoke at council meetings before the slayings about rampant littering, drug dealing, prostitution and public drunkenness in the neighborhood.
Tokarski urged council members during a public hearing on the budget Monday to enforce the “demolition by neglect” ordinance approved several years ago to tackle dilapidated houses, and fully fund the city’s nonprofit Call Kinston Home organization, which is tasked with refurbishing dwellings.
The city’s 2012 allocation for that group was cut in half from previous years.
“We can’t go another year without having some momentum on demolition by neglect,” she said.
Tokarski said if the city can fund a bandstand in Pearson Park, then it should be able to fund cleanup efforts in the neighborhoods around that park.
“The neighborhood next to that park is dying,” she said of Mitchelltown.
Mayor B.J. Murphy called for greater funding of street resurfacing projects. He said studies indicate Kinston should spend $400,000 a year on street maintenance to ensure a 25-year life cycle for all streets.
The budget only includes $100,000 for street resurfacing next year, though.
“That should be a cemented line,” Murphy said of the amount the council ultimately decides to allocate for street repairs. “Whatever minimum (amount) we want there, it should be there.”
Stevens said the council can fully fund street maintenance if it chooses, but measures would need to be taken elsewhere in the budget to fulfill that mandate.
“You can make the rule however you would like,” he said. “The challenge is, we would need to raise the tax rate to do that or we would need to cut people.”
David Anderson can be reached at 252-559-1077 or firstname.lastname@example.org.