tax collection

Another big topic we discussed at our annual retreat is our budget strategy for the upcoming fiscal year. Revenue for the current fiscal year continues to be strong. As of the end of January, ad valorem property tax receipts are just over 100% of budget. Sales tax receipts through the end of December (half the fiscal year, which does not include the full impact of Christmas) are at 56.5% of budget. On the expense side, most line items are on track with our budget.

As a result of this, we are looking at a pretty healthy surplus when we close out the fiscal year at the end of June. Part of our strategy for the current fiscal year was to take a fairly conservative approach to the budget, and if the economy bounced back faster than anticipated, we would use some of the resulting surplus on outstanding capital projects.

So, staff presented four options for prioritization for the current year. Those were the Splash Pad, Skate Park, Dog Park, and the next phase of improvements to Rocky Branch Park. After some discussion, we decided to prioritize the Skate Park and the Rocky Branch Park improvements, which together will consume roughly $220k of this year’s surplus.

Looking ahead to next year, capital projects will likely continue to be a focus. Given how strong our revenues have been and continue to be, I suggested that we, as a Council, take a look at our property taxes to determine if we need to make any adjustments to the tax rate. The City has seen very positive growth in both our tax base and our sales tax collections over the last few years, so I think this may create an opportunity for us to implement a small cut to the tax rate while still accomplishing the goals that we have for the City. Prudence would suggest that whatever we do on that front should be measured, and the rest of the Council agreed to take a look at this at an upcoming workshop. So, we will take a look at this over the next few weeks as we get into building the budget for next year.

An update from our Monday meeting:

-Both the rezoning requests for the new hospital and the new recreation center were approved. In discussing the hospital, the height of the proposed building (about 100 feet) generated some discussion around where additional building height is appropriate in the city. The concerns weren’t necessarily specific to the hospital, but we did agree to take a closer look at things like this as part of a broader review of land use in the city (more on that below).

-We also finalized the Tree Ordinance that we initially took up last month. The only substantive change was to place Residential Infill development back on the exemption list. Staff confirmed that the way our ordinances are currently structured, Infill Development can get a credit for tree save to use against their landscaping requirements, which should provide enough of an incentive for property owners to preserve existing trees where it makes sense without the City being too heavy-handed from a regulatory perspective.

-We also received an update from our new Code Enforcement officer on the various cases that she is working. Of note is the case involving the commercial building on Cason Street in North Belmont. City Council approved a demolition ordinance for that building in August, but the property owner has since filed suit against the City. So, that case is effectively on hold until the litigation is resolved.

-Council also received an update from the City Manager on a couple capital projects that have been completed. These include the purchase of a new city bus, the Art Wrap project on the utility boxes on 6th Street that the Main Street program has been coordinating, and the construction/rehab of sidewalk along South Point Road and South Main Street.

-At the end of the meeting, the Council had a discussion about our next workshop. We decided to postpone our joint meeting with the Environmental Sustainability Board in favor of having a broader, strategic discussion about land use and planning in Belmont. Given that development interest continues to be strong in the City, we thought it best to have this conversation sooner rather than later as any changes that we would need to make to our ordinances or land use plan would take time to put together. So, we’ll being tackling that at our next workshop and look to meet with the ESB at a future workshop.

A few highlights from our CIP workshop at the end of last week:

Most of our discussion focused on non-Utility capital improvements. We decided to do a separate workshop later in the fall (with the appropriate staff) to focus on that program given that most of those improvements are very technical. A list of some of the bigger items we talked about are below. Note that we didn’t “approve” any of these projects, but simply gave the go-ahead to staff to begin planning for these projects. These will still come back to Council for approval before they are funded :
-The Phase I Rocky Branch Park improvements that will construct a multi-use trail through Rocky Branch Park. The Tarheel Trailblazers have already done some significant fundraising for this project, so we’re looking at providing a match (of about $46k) to what they’ve raised.

-The new Recreation Center. We are looking into the feasibility of also including funding for a skate park and splash pad in the loan that funds the Rec Center. The final loan for the Rec Center will likely be about $11MM, and the costs of those two projects are small enough that they are unlikely to significantly impact our annual debt service (i.e. the difference in payments on a $11MM loan and a $11.5MM loan is relatively small, especially since interest rates are so low). We asked staff to develop some cost estimates for the annual maintenance involved with a skate park and a splash pad to get a better idea of what the total cost of ownership for those two projects would look like.

-We also talked about purchasing a new bus. The good news on this item is that the cost of a new bus is a little bit lower than what we thought it was going to be (about $90k for a 25-passenger, handicap accessible bus). We’re still looking at a couple options regarding financing it (including using proceeds from a $75k land sale to offset the cost), but the lower cost makes that effort significantly easier.

-We also briefly talked about the Dog Park that the DBDA is fundraising for. This was another project where we want to make sure we understand the ongoing maintenance needs for the park (especially figuring out the best way to keep it clean, etc.).

If you have any questions (or thoughts) about these projects, let me know!

Yesterday, City Council met with representatives from NCDOT, Ronnie Worley Gaston County Commissioner, and Representative Dana Bumgardner to discuss the intersection of Belwood Drive and South Point Road in front of the new middle school. There were also several residents from the Belwood Drive neighborhood present.

There was a general consensus among the group that the current design for that intersection presents a number of issues both from a safety and traffic flow perspective. I think that the current design basically creates either a situation where traffic deadlocks every time someone needs to go into or out of the Belwood Drive neighborhood or a situation where (young) pedestrians are in close proximity to drivers distracted by attempting to make a very quick turn.

There is some development interest in the property across the street from the middle school which may provide an opportunity for a long-term solution to this problem. However, even under the best-case scenario, it is unlikely a fix under this route would be in place by the time the new school opens. So, Council directed staff to obtain cost estimates for the work necessary to fix the intersection so that we can determine the level of financial commitment necessary for this project and explore some possible creative financing opportunities. There seemed to be a shared commitment among the different parties at the meeting yesterday to find a solution to this problem, so I am cautiously optimistic about our chances of figuring out a fix for this.

In other news, the agenda for our CIP workshop on Thursday is now available. You can find that here.

There are two Council meetings this week to be aware of:

-The first is tomorrow at 2pm at TechWorks. We will be meeting with staff from NCDOT to discuss the intersection design for Belwood Drive and South Point Road (in front of the new middle school). DOT’s current design for that intersection calls for creating two separate three-way intersections (one at Belwood Drive, the other at the entrance to the new school). The City is working with DOT to see if it is possible to shift Belwood Drive’s intersection over a few feet to create one four-way intersection. The agenda and some related schematics are located here.

-The second meeting will be Thursday at 3:30pm (also at TechWorks). We will be discussing our Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) for the current fiscal year. The CIP is the process by which the City funds all of the “big” projects and, there are usually more projects on the list than we can fund in a given year. So we will be prioritizing projects for funding at this meeting. I will post a link to that agenda once it is available.