Thursday, May 23, 2024

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Elon’s proposed budget set for public hearing on May 28

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Elon’s town council spent nearly an hour this week picking apart some recent revisions that the town manager has made to his proposed spending plan for the town’s municipal government.

In the end, the town’s elected leaders made no changes to the budget’s latest iteration, which Elon’s town manager Richard Roedner formally presented to them during a regularly-scheduled council meeting on Tuesday.

In its broad strokes, the budget’s new iteration isn’t much different from the original draft that Roedner unveiled to the council on March 25.

Like its antecedent, the budget’s most recent variant calls for roughly $11 million in outlays from the town’s general fund – a repository for various taxes and fees which pays for most of the town’s programs and services. These proposed allocations include nearly $900,000 for various “capital investments,” along with payroll increases to cover a proposed 3-percent “cost of living adjustment,” a merit-based raise that’s expected to tack on another 1.5 percent, and a mid-year pay raise of 5 percent that the council has previously extended to the town’s full-time staff. Also factored into the budget is some additional cash to implement a pay study that a hired consultant is now wrapping up on behalf of a municipal staff that comprises fewer than 70 full-time positions.

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Elon town manager Richard Roedner

Roedner’s budget for the town’s general fund doesn’t call for any change in Elon’s current property tax rate of 35 cents – a figure that the council adopted last year despite it being 4.34 cents, or about 14 percent, higher than the rate the county’s tax officer had estimated the town needed to break even following a countywide property revaluation in 2023. Roedner has nevertheless scavenged revenue from other sources, including some $1.6 million from the town’s savings, which he otherwise expected to exceed the general fund’s entire annual budget.

Since he unveiled his original budget in March, Roedner has made a few nips and tucks based on suggestions that the council shared during a four-hour “workshop” on April 15. More recently, the manager has made further revisions in response to recent cost estimates that have come in above his initial predictions in March.

In his presentation to the council on Tuesday, Roedner explained that the current provider of the town’s employee health coverage has announced an increase of $140,000, or 35 percent, in its premiums. At the same time, the company which insures the police department for legal liability is demanding an additional $30,000 from the town while the consultant working on the town’s pay study had nudged up the anticipated cost to implement its recommendations by about $254,000.

All told, Roedner told the council that he needed to trim $316,541 from the general fund’s bottom line to bring the budget back into balance. To accomplish this feat, he said he instructed all of the town’s department’s to pare back their proposed spending by 2 percent. He also pared back some of the part-time help he had slated for the town’s recreation department, reduced the police department’s equipment line item, and shifted some of the public works department’s payroll expenses to the town’s water and sewer budget since the department’s staff also maintains the town’s utility system.

Since he enacted these cuts, Roedner acknowledged that the consultant tasked with the pay study revised their cost estimate down by about $80,000. He said that this development has allowed him to restore many of he smaller cuts that had been dispersed throughout his penultimate draft of the budget.

In any event, Roedner was able to declare the disaster averted by the time that he briefed the council on Tuesday.

“I have gotten the budget back into balance with that package of cuts,” he explained. “I think the bottom line number you see is a good number…But I wanted you to hear and to see what we have done over the last couple of weeks to balance the budget.”

Roedner’s latest revisions prompted a fair bit of debate among the council about specific line items as well as the budget’s overall thrust. There was much discussion, for instance, about the manager’s recommendation that the town should lease, rather than purchase, a complement of new radios for its emergency services, which will soon have to ditch their old models due to a forthcoming change in the federal standard for emergency communications.  Some members of the council also probed the manager for any misgivings he may have about the relatively large amount of savings he has penciled in to his budget. Roedner, for his part, acknowledged the move isn’t without some degree of risk, although he added that town should be able to replenish its reserves thanks to property tax revenue from subdivisions that are now on the drawing board.

“There are a lot of things on the horizon that, if they come to pass, will bring in more revenue,” he said. “My concern is that there’s a crash like in 2008 and people stop building.”

The council generally seemed less inclined to second-guess Roedner’s personnel recommendations. In fact, councilmember Stephanie Bourland announced her desire to spend money “to give our employees a fair and livable wage” during an unrelated discussion about a proposed municipal skatepark, which comprises nearly a third of the $900,000 which Roedner has set aside for capital investments.

Councilman Quinn Ray was the only one willing to graze this third rail of municipal politics.

“This is going to sound terrible,” he said during Tuesday’s budgetary discussion. “But our number one priority isn’t going to take care of staff. We need to take care of the people.”

We don’t take care of the people,” shot back Elon’s mayor Emily Sharpe. “We need to take care of staff because they take care of the people.”

In the meantime, councilman Randy Orwig tried to becalm the growing sense of anxiety that some of his colleagues seemed to be having about the new spending plan.

“We don’t need to be terrified,” he insisted. “We need to be aware…but at the end of the day, we’re in a healthy spot.”

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