Thursday, May 23, 2024

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Elon town council focuses on part-time position amid $10.9M budget


Elon town manager Richard Roedner had put out a proposed budget totaling about $10.9 million a few weeks ago. He proposed one new employee, in the public works department.

But what consumed town council members for a full hour of their four-hour meeting on Monday were just a few thousand dollars for a part-time position at town hall.

Sarah Bass is a part-time staffer with the title of downtown assistant/farmers market manager.

Downtown developer director Jill Weston, Bass’ boss, had requested that the position be expanded to full time.

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Roedner instead penciled in an expansion of the position to about 30 hours, with an increased hourly rate.

But council members spent much of the meeting second-guessing Roedner’s decision and debating what would be the best approach for Elon’s development.

Weston insisted that Bass could do more social media posts, fundraising, and seeking sponsorship for town events if she had more time “on the clock” at town hall.

Councilman Quinn Ray asked Roedner to confirm that, in his judgment, an additional employee at public works was a higher priority – i.e., where “the greatest value for new employees would be.” Roedner said he felt public works needed the position he had included and could use a second additional person; he also added that the “fire chief will need people in the future,” although he hadn’t asked for any for the upcoming budget year.

But mayor Emily Sharpe, who doesn’t vote except in cases of a tie, and council members Stephanie Bourland and Randy Orwig, pressed for making the downtown assistant director position full-time.

Part of the extended discussion also focused on whether the town could fund the position, or any part of it, with anticipated revenue that will come to the town through a new hotel occupancy tax that the council has already adopted, but which won’t take effect until July 1, the same time as the new budget.

However, that answer has become less clear as a result of a recent decision by the North Carolina Court of Appeals, which found that certain expenditures incurred in Currituck County, under that county’s hotel occupancy tax, are no longer valid.

For instance, in the case of the new occupancy tax available to Alamance County’s four municipalities – Burlington, Graham, Mebane, and Elon – two-thirds of each jurisdiction’s allotment is to be spent for marketing and advertising for tourism purposes, while the remaining one-third can be used for other expenses.

It’s also unclear whether the town council, itself, can set the parameters of how the funds generated from its tax should be spent.  Several interpretations from the state’s Institute of Government suggest that the municipal tourism development authority, to which each local municipality will belong, is to set the spending priorities.

The added tax for the four Alamance County jurisdictions does require that revenues should be apportioned based on the amounts raised within each jurisdiction.

“Flowers don’t bring in tourists,” said Bourland in arguing in favor of increasing the focus and hours for the assistant downtown director.

“We have no communication strategy as a town,” Sharpe also stressed, in urging more funding for the downtown assistant director’s position.

There was no final decision made, although it became clear that a majority of voting members – Bourland, Orwig, and Michael Woods – favored more hours for the part-timer.


Non-profit requests

Roedner sought guidance on whether to add any funding for any of three local non-profits that had made a request.

Traditionally, Elon has not provided such line item expenditures.  But the Alamance County Transportation Authority (ACTA) asked for $3,500; the United Way asked for $5,000; and Alamance Arts requested an unspecified amount to fill what director Tammy Cobb described as a $30,000 gap.

Cobb said, “Many of our lifelong donors are aging out of giving.”

Roedner had not included funding for any of the three, and wanted confirmation of that approach, which he ultimately got.

Said mayor pro tem Monti Allison, “We support two large non-profits now,” he said in an apparent reference to Elon University and Twin Lakes Retirement Community, two of the largest landowners, and who pay no property taxes, to the town.

For her part, Sharpe said she did not see how the town could ask the two non-profits to provide greater support for town government and then turn around and give away some of the revenues to other non-profits.

The town is trying to get Elon University to chip in $86,600 to help cover the cost of a new fire truck and fire department services, thereby almost doubling the amount the university currently contributes.

The university now pays $15,200 toward the police budget and another $51,000 toward the downtown development director’s salary.

But members have grown increasingly concerned that the university is receiving far more benefit from town services than its contributions cover.  And every university acquisition of additional land around the campus reduces the property tax revenues coming to the town.

It was generally agreed that individual residents could donate to the non-profits on their own, without adding to the burden on taxpayers.


Pay study’s potential impact

Roedner is tentatively planning to recommend a 3 percent cost-of-living increase for town employees, to follow a 5 percent boost that the council granted in December.

But Roedner has held off making any further plans regarding salaries, as the town awaits a comprehensive report on town salaries from a consultant.

The timing of the report is likely to affect the council’s plans for when to hold a public hearing on the budget.  The final consensus was that whether to hold a hearing on May 14 or 28 will largely depend on when that report is received and how dramatic an impact it may have on next year’s budget.

Ray asked his colleagues, “Where do you propose to make it up?” if the consultant recommends significant increases.

“We need to wait until the pay study is finished even to have a public hearing on the budget,” Sharpe said.


Other issues

Sharpe also reminded the council that it needed to review the efficacy of the town’s contribution to Link Transit, the local bus system operated by the city of Burlington.

Roedner provided the newspaper with a recent report (through November) that showed 645 people got on or off the Link Transit buses at stops within Elon during its first seven months of operation in the town.

Last spring, the town council agreed to pay $28,347 for the full fiscal year – July 1, 2023 through June 30, 2024.  It also paid $3,152 for about five weeks between May 22 through June 20, 2023.

Sharpe also said “it would be nice to be notified” about changes in Link Transit bus stops, pointing to several apparent changes for which the town received no notice.

Council members also expressed frustration at the increased water rates, 4 percent, that will be needed to cover the increased charges from the city of Burlington for those services.

Roedner is not planning to recommend a tax increase.  Elon’s current budget included a 14 percent tax hike above the “revenue neutral” level after last year’s revaluation.

It was also noted that the town has more than a year’s worth of budget in its savings.  While Roedner pointed to several items that he is recommending to be paid from that fund balance, councilmen also debated at times whether to bring this amount down further by diverting money to cover various of their preferred items in the budget.

Alamance News publisher Tom Boney, Jr., present to cover the meeting for the newspaper, also admonished the council for not having made provision to have its meeting recorded.

“It’s simply not responsible to have this long a meeting [ultimately four hours] with no recording so that residents could find out how members felt, and what they said, about various aspects of the budget, which is among your most important decisions,” Boney told the gathering.

He added, that he was an “equal opportunity advocate” for such basics, having criticized Graham’s city council last week when discussion at that meeting revealed that a six-and-a-half hour council meeting from December, also involving budget issues, also wasn’t recorded.

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