The Greenville City Council is set to restore $6.5 million to its current budget in February thanks to better than expected tax revenues.
The city can fund employee pay raises, hire new staff and fund operational expenses such as purchasing additional vehicles, Assistant City Manager Michael Cowin said.
Cowin updated the council on its fiscal year 2020-21 budget during its annual planning meeting held online Friday afternoon.
While the 2020 property revaluation saw the city’s tax base grow last year, the council cut $7.5 million from its 2020-21 budget because of concerns that the lockdown and job losses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic would prevent people from paying their property taxes and reduce sales tax revenue.
The two taxes make up 81 percent of the city’s revenue, Cowin said. Personnel, operational and pay as you go capital expenses make up 85 percent of expenditures.
Based on property tax revenue received between July and December and revenues from inspections and other sources, Cowin said $6.5 million, 86 percent of what was cut, could be restored.
“Do you feel the projections you are seeing right now, restoring the numbers to where you want to restore them, that’s going to give you enough flexibility if something unforeseen happens between now and the rest of our fiscal year,” Mayor P.J. Connelly asked.
“Mr. Mayor, even with the projections we have made in the revenues there is a cushion of conservatism that is built into that,” Cowin said. “We’re trying to make sure that we are not pushing the accelerator too much here. We have some flexibility moving forward to the remainder of the fiscal year.”
Staff recommends $5.2 million go to original budget line items that were cut, Cowin said. That includes spending $900,000 to give employees a 1.5 percent merit pay increase and .5 percent market rate adjustment, he said.
City Manager Ann Wall said the increases would be retroactive to July 1.
If the council approves the recommendation in February, Cowin said employees will see the retroactive amount in the second February paycheck. The first paycheck in March would reflect the normal adjustment.
“So it’s Christmas in February for the city staff,” Councilman Rick Smiley said.
As for the other operational expenses, staff is recommending $500,000 for its post-employment benefits fund, $767,544 for facility improvements, $2.3 million for vehicle replacement, $200,000 for computer replacement, $100,000 for pedestrian safety measures, $200,000 for part-time and overtime salaries, $100,000 to go toward allowing new hiring and $85,3000 to Sheppard Memorial Library.
The remaining $1.3 million going to one-time expenses that weren’t part of the original budget. Cowin recommends placing $500,000 in contingency to cover possible shortfalls or unexpected expenses that could occur in the remaining months of the fiscal year, $165,000 to put camping platforms at Wildwood Park, $234,907 to replace public safety radios and $420,000 to cover permitting costs associated with the MetroNet fiber optic installation project that will bring a second internet/cable/telephone provider to Greenville.
The council will have to approve an amendment adjusting the budget with these recommendations in February.
Cowin said adding the $6.5 million back to the budget brings it close to the base budget the council had planned before the pandemic struck. It’s important to return to that base budget because it becomes the building block for future budgets.
Friday’s planning session gave the council a first look at recommended changes in the existing budget and gave Wall a chance to report on actions carried out in 2020 that were part of the council’s strategic plan.
Six weeks after the city council held its 2020 planning session, Wall said she and department managers met for the first time to discuss the city’s response to the growing pandemic threat.
Since then city staff had to become flexible and focus on providing a continuity of service while keeping employees safe.
It meant adjusting work schedules, finding creative ways to provide service, particularly through the use of technology.
“We’ve had to really work to understand the concerns of the community,” Wall said. “In view of all of that and a world that has changed dramatically since we first discussed these goals I’m really proud of the progress that’s been made.”
Among the activities highlighted by Wall:
- The police department establishing a mobile crisis mental health partnership where counselors will assist officers.
- Converting 6,000 of 8,300 street lights to LED bulbs.
- A 16 percent reduction in crashes, a result of installing modular medians to prevent dangerous turns and installing pedestrian intervals to make it safer to cross the street.
- Completion of the $33 million Town Creek Culvert project that is reducing flooding in the business area near East Carolina University.
- Planning is underway for three additional stormwater improvement projects.
- Securing a $15 million federal BUILD Grant to improve pedestrian, multimodal and vehicle travel.
- Construction of the South Tar River Greenway is underway. Wall said rain and utility conflicts have created delays but the trail from Town Common to Nash Street should be completed this summer.
- Purchase of land along U.S. 264 and Old Pactolus Road that will be Wildwood Park. Wall said construction of a parking area, beach access and primitive trail should begin soon.
- Identifying a location for the new community swimming pool and beginning the design process to build the pool and rehabilitate Eppes Recreation Center. Staff plans for construction to begin on both projects in May or June with the goal of opening the pool in early summer 2022.
“While I was watching the presentation it occurred to me that it’s always tempting to say we got a lot accomplished given the fact that there’s been this pandemic. I think it’s fair to say that the staff has gotten a lot accomplished. Period,” Councilman Rick Smiley said. “This would be a fine report and a fine collection of achievements if it had been a normal year.”
Connelly said he wants a future discussion about creating a music venue in the area.
He believes it could be a simple setting, so cost can be kept down.
It could be the “first big step” that would focus development attention in areas of Greenville north of the Tar River.
Wall said three large pavilions already exist on the Wildwood Park property and can be studied to see how they can be put to use.
“What the pandemic may show us is that venues that are outside, in the open air may perform better than those inside,” Wall said.
Connelly said the council and staff also need to focus their efforts on lobbying the N.C. Department of Transportation and legislative leaders to secure additional funding for multiple transportation projects that have been paused because of funding shortage resulting from weather-related road damage in recent years.
The state timelines for widening Evans Street and Portertown and Fire Tower roads have been pushed to 2025 and 2028, respectively, Connelly said. He worries the planned design for Fire Tower and Portertown will be out of date by the time it’s built.
“If we continue to bring thousands of people to our community and add density there is no way we can sustain that,” Connelly said.
Steve Weathers, president and CEO of the Greenville-ENC Alliance economic development agency, said he’s concerned about the city’s roadways.
“I think over the next five years you’re going to see tremendous growth here,” Weathers said. “The issue is going to be, driving around, how are you going to improve the infrastructure? If you have more people, Evans (street) can’t be one way each way. You’ve got a lot of traffic. You’ve got to move a lot of people around, whether it’s mass traffic or whatever. This is a great community and we want to keep it great. If you’ve got more people you’ve got more problems.”
Later, Connelly said future budgets should include a boost in road construction spending.
There are a lot of roads off West Fifth Street that need paving, he said. Roads in council Districts 1, 2 and 3 also need improvements.
“I think we are way, way behind from many years of neglect in the past,” Connelly said. “It’s extremely important that we as a city understand that if we are going to continue to bring in the growth we are trying to bring it we need to take care of our infrastructure and invest it in.”
Along with discussing the city’s road infrastructure, Weathers provided council with a rundown on the alliance’s first year of work.
The organization currently has 10 active projects. Two have been submitted to the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina for review for possible state incentives, two have visited the area and six are gathering information.
Last year World Cat, Grover Gaming and Thermo Fisher Scientific announced they were either relocating or expanding operations in Greenville.
The community lost out on three projects. One prospect, a bottle manufacturer said Greenville wasn’t close enough to its customer base or materials supplier. Another said a shell building they examined wasn’t developed enough for their needs.
The third didn’t come to Greenville because it didn’t have the right railroad infrastructure.
The alliance is working with a consultant to make contacts with other firms and staff has arranged to talk with a fetrilizer company that wants to open operations on the East Coast and another one manufactures lubricants for automobiles.
The alliance also is working on retail recruitment efforts, Weathers said.
That includes a campaign to bring a Trader Joe’s to the city.
“This is going to take a community effort,” Weathers said. “All of you (council members) and everybody on this live stream showing we want this here.”
Weathers said he would like Connelly to sign a proclamation declaring a “Trader Joe” day in the city. The alliance also will be collecting data to confirm Greenville would be a profitable market.
“We need to show if they come here there is a market, that they are going to have lines out the door every day,” Weathers said.
The alliance also is working with ElectriCities, a nonprofit organization that advocates for public power communities, to recruit a pharmacy that will open north of the Tar River.
Staff is talking with landowners to see who wants to market the property and talking to national pharmacies to determine their interest, Weathers said.