City hopes to avoid tax increase: Mayor

From left, West Point Selectman Jasper Pittman, City Administrator Randy Jones, Mayor Robbie Robinson, Selectman Keith McBrayer and Parks Director James Crowley crunch numbers during Tuesday's budget planning session.
Staff Writer

West Point's preliminary $7.8 million spending plan for the new budget year that starts July 1 includes three new police officers and two firefighters as part of a long-range improvement plan, but no pay raise for city workers.

But those numbers are "only hypothetical and subject to change" once city leaders "crunch all the numbers together," Mayor Robbie Robinson said.

Robinson, city administrator Randy Jones, and Selectmen Keith McBrayer and Jasper Pittman have been meeting with department heads during the last two weeks to grind through the budget requests and projections line-by-line.

Tuesday it was parks and recreation 
By the time the 90-minute session was over, Director James Crowley's total was almost $7,500 lower than his current budget, but he still will be able to pave one of the parking lots at the Harmon Sportsplex, buy another utility vehicle to shuttle materials and people, and make other improvements while solidifying some staffing questions.

Part of that is thanks to the city's 1 percent recreation tax on meals and hotel rooms that will generate an estimated $270,000 in the 12 months starting July 1.

That revenue was used to build the city's first splash pad at the sportsplex this year.

It will open in the next month. Crowley said parking, pavilions and benches and a few other final touches must be completed before it opens.

Selectmen also must establish some rules for the splash pad's use.

Leveling out staffing at six full-time workers, including Crowley and his assistant, will make the department more efficient, he said during Tuesday's discussion.

"We are adding a little more every year and we really need four full-time people in addition to us two," he said. "That way we can cut back on some of the part-time people and focus our work year-around.

The capital improvements on parking and other features at the complex pay off in the long run in being able to better serve youth sports and attract tournaments.
"Every dollar you spend up there is an investment in the community," McBrayer said of the park located off North Eshman.

The staff has yet to go through the city utilities budget, although it is separate from the city's general operating fund.

Robinson hopes to have the preliminary process finished next week to have discussions with the full Board of Selectmen and public hearings.

Robinson doesn't anticipate an increase in the city's total 36.15-mill property tax rate.
"The board has been really conservative and has been very successful at keeping the millage rate low," the mayor said.

That means once all the proposed budgets are totaled and revenue projections tweaked, changes will be made. Police Chief Avery Cook's goal of getting to 32 officers on patrol may have to slow down. The fire department needs the two new hires to reach the staffing levels needed to keep fire ratings low, but the timing of those hires is critical to minimize the impact on the spending plan.
The city has two other things working against it; one will end next year but the other is more complicated.

Early last year, the state discovered it had overpaid the city sales tax revenues. It withheld one full month and the city has been repaying the remainder at the rate of $18,300 a month.

That amounts to more than $219,000 from July through next June when the city completes paying the state back. That total is almost 3 percent of the city's total projected revenue.
"We could do a lot with $219,000," the mayor lamented.
The other challenge is the city's budget year runs July 1 through June 30. The state and almost every other city and county operate on an Oct. 1-Sept. 30 fiscal year because the bulk to property values are completed in July and property taxes collected from December through February.

"We know we've had some growth, but we really can't estimated our property tax revenues until August or even September. So in June, we are guessing a little more. That's why we have to make sure our department heads and staff understand this isn't a sprint, it's a long-distance run," he explained.
"We approve our budget in June and we don't set the tax rate until September when we have a better idea what to expect from revenue projections," he continued.

The value of a mill -- how much revenue each mill generates -- is important not only because it determines a big chunk of revenue projections but also because it helps determine the overall tax rate.

For instance, of the city's total tax rate, 29.4 mills currently goes to general operations, 5.5 mills go for debt service and 1.25 mills support the library. If the value of a mill goes up, selectmen may be able to adjust the amount of millage going to each category while still maintaining the total overall tax rate.
"Until we get that value, we're flying in the dark a little bit," Robinson noted.
"But our goal right now is to make this budget balance on the face value. not have to dip into reserves or raise taxes," he concluded.