Include Community Support Grants in city budget


Sunday, April 7, 2019

Elizabeth City City Councilor Johnnie Walton is right when he says the city manager’s current budget proposal for next year doesn’t represent the city’s values.

The $74 million-plus spending plan as currently proposed by City Manager Rich Olson would raise the city property tax rate by 4 cents — to 69.5 cents per $100 of valuation — but eliminate such community-building efforts like the city’s $20,000 annual contribution to Food Bank of the Albemarle and the $30,000 Community Support Grant program.

The city’s Food Bank contribution helps support the agency’s efforts to feed thousands of hungry people across the region who need assistance with food, many of whom live in Elizabeth City. Community Support Grants typically go to nonprofits such as Arts of the Albemarle, the Boys & Girls Club and River City Community Development Corp., for their efforts boosting arts and youth programs in the city. Each depends on an annual contribution from the city to stitch together their own budgets from already stretched-thin resources.

Olson makes a strong case for a multi-cent tax rate increase. He says the city is having trouble attracting and keeping critical personnel like police officers and firefighters. The police department, for example, currently budgets for 64 officers, but 10 of the positions are currently vacant. He says one significant cause for the vacancies is pay: city officers and firefighters can make more money working elsewhere, so they leave. The city says 18 certified police officers have left the city’s employ since May 1, 2018 — a 28 percent turnover rate. About a third left for pay-related reasons. The numbers are similar for firefighters: 16 have left since Jan. 1, 2018, half of whom cited pay as an issue.

To stop this outflow of critical personnel, Olson is proposing raising both police officer and firefighter pay by 8 percent, estimating the cost will be $246,000 for the police raises and another $151,000 for the firefighter raises. Olson is also proposing to raise pay for electric linemen — another hard-to-fill position — by 10 percent. However, since their pay is covered by the city’s electric fund, raising it won’t affect the city’s tax revenues. 

Olson says a tax increase is also needed for the city and Pasquotank County to follow through on plans to buy and retrofit The Daily Advance building into a new senior center. Olson projects the city’s share of the debt financing for the project and the center’s increased operating costs will total about $167,000 more a year.

Olson’s budget proposal also spends $225,000 for a city employee health clinic, a cost he’s hoping to halve if he can get the city’s health insurer to cover half the price tag. At even half the cost, however, the clinic would still cost roughly the equivalent of one penny on the city’s tax rate. Olson estimates one cent of property tax raises $119,000.

While the police and fire raises, new senior center and city employee health clinic all seem expenditures justifying a tax increase, less justifiable is Olson’s proposed 3-percent raise for all other city employees — at a cost of $186,000 — and the continued expenditure of $80,000 on the city’s Business Improvement Grant program.

If you’re telling taxpayers they need to pay more so the city can attract and retain staff in critical, hard-to-fill positions, it seems unfair to turn around and say, oh by the way, we also need to pay everybody else more too. A government budget that claims to be making hard choices, particularly when it comes to funding for nonprofits, shouldn’t relax its principles just to make all employees happy — not when you’re asking taxpayers to pay more than they do now.

Similarly, we don’t think the budget should continue to fund the BIG program if it’s going to zero-out funding for the Food Bank and the Community Support Grants. Yes, the BIG program has been successful helping revitalize the downtown, helping new businesses create new jobs and thrive. But just as it’s been successful, so has the grant program that helps fund nonprofits that deliver vital services to our community.

Some have long claimed the city shouldn’t be in the business of providing any funding to nonprofits, that churches, individuals and civic groups are fully capable of carrying this burden. While that might work in larger communities, it doesn’t in ours. Yes, there is a lot of commendable volunteerism and charity here. It’s not enough, however. Local government has a vital role to play in making sure hungry people get fed and youth have after-school activities. These services also pay hidden dividends to the city: Less hungry people commit fewer crimes; active kids get into less trouble; an active arts community draws more people with money to spend.

City officials almost certainly understand this argument. Otherwise, why would the budget continue to spend $65,000 on two nonprofits: the Police Athletic League and Albemarle Hopeline? Olson says those nonprofits are funded because they’re included in the proposed police budget. Left unsaid is why they’re included in the police budget, given they aren’t direct police operations. They’re there because the police department values the work they do helping it do its job.

That of course could also be said of Food Bank of the Albemarle, the Boys & Girls Club, Arts of the Albemarle and any number of other local nonprofits the city is choosing to turn its back on by zeroing out designated funding and the Community Support Grants.

A budget that eliminates this funding does not express our community’s values. We’d urge City Council to make the necessary adjustments to ensure this critical funding is restored, even more so if taxpayers are required to pay more in taxes next year.