In Graham’s budget meeting in early March, the main focus of new personnel was on the police department, where the new police chief, Kristy Cole, is asking for 10 new patrol officers, at an annual cost of about $1.2 million. (That number does not include potential equipment, including cars for each officer.)
Meanwhile fire chief Tommy Cole (no relation to the police chief with the same last name) is asking for at least four new firefighters and as many as 18, especially if the city council authorizes the construction of two satellite fire stations in the southeast and southwest portion of the city, which he said are badly needed.
Police chief Cole says her 58-member department (which includes civilian positions, as well) is woefully understaffed – 60 percent under in the patrol division, which has 20 officers, according to the department’s analysis. She would add all 10 new officers in this division, a 50 percent increase in staffing for that part of her department.
In an unusual step, Cole did not actually present her budget request to the council members, but instead delegated it – first to recently-named assistant chief Rodney King, who subsequently delegated it to sergeant Crystal O’Neal, who outlined the workload assessment of the department.
O’Neal is also an adjunct professor at Elon University in human services studies within the criminal justice services department.
In all other cases in Graham, both this year and historically, the department heads themselves outlined their department’s needs.
In a recent interview with The Alamance News, the new chief defended her use of subordinates to make the budget presentation to the city council.
In a subsequent interview with The Alamance News, Cole defended her delegation of the presentation. She said the “team atmosphere” at the department is enhanced by what she termed “fostering employee growth.” She expressed confidence in the ability of O’Neal who handled most of the presentation, pointing out that she is an adjunct Elon University professor, in addition to working in the police department.
According to the police budget presentation, Graham’s police department needs about 2½ times more patrol officers than they have – 53, according to the department’s tabulations, rather than 20. O’Neal emphasized that the patrol division has not been increased since 1999.
Based on the 26 percent growth in population since 1999, O’Neal acknowledged that the department would need six new officers, but she said other factors add to the need.
Among factors was the sizeable increase in protests and demonstrations in downtown Graham during 2020. O’Neal said there had been 40 such demonstrations or protests, compared to 12 the previous year. The hours spent for Graham officers to respond to those demonstrations tallied to $64,665, she estimated.
She also said that Burlington’s municipal police had responded to assist Graham on three occasions, estimating that its costs amounted to $8,280.
O’Neal acknowledged in her tabulations that the 11 officers in criminal investigations within the department were not included in the workload assessment – since, she said, they do not typically respond to service calls.
O’Neal emphasized that Graham police’s patrol division had responded to 22,402 calls for service during 2020, compared to what she said was a national average call volume of 9,011 for cities Graham’s size – thus almost 2½ times the typical call volume.
O’Neal claimed that the 20 Graham patrol officers are handling the call volume and taking care of cases at a rate that would typically require 41-43 officers.
Thus, she told the council members, the current patrol officers are being asked to handle more than twice the workload “not just every now and then, not just when there’s a special event or a critical incident, but every single day.”
At the same time, O’Neal acknowledged that it “is not feasible” to make the increases in staffing to catch up to levels she says are needed in one budget cycle.
“We need to start,” she said by adding 10 new patrol officers.
Chief Cole elaborated that she is recommending a “staggered deployment” by adding five more officers in July (the beginning of the fiscal year) and another five in January (at the mid-point of the fiscal year).
Fire department needs
Meanwhile fire chief Tommy Cole is asking for at least four additional firefighters, that would cost $62,000 each.
The fire chief said the fire department is “busting at the seams” within the 6,500 square feet it occupies at the back of city hall.
The fire department currently uses three engines and one tower ladder, he said. Fire trucks are on a 20-year life rotation, he said, noting that one will need to be replaced in the next fiscal year in order to remain on schedule. The cost for a new truck can range from $600,000 to almost $1 million, he described, depending on the specific features it has.
The chief also focused on the staffing at the department.
“The fire department has not grown in any full-time positions in at least 20 years,” the fire chief said.
One of the biggest increases in the city’s fire call volumes, the chief noted, was the additional of priority medical calls over the past year. More than half (773) of the 1,428 calls responded to by the fire department in 2020 were medical calls, while regular fire calls remained fairly steady – 655 compared to 600 in 2018, according to statistics the fire chief presented.
He touted the life-saving results from running medical calls, saying that the public was very appreciative of the immediacy of fire department response, which he said had included a number of “cardiac life saves.”
The chief said, however, that medical calls are screened for potential COVID exposure, and that the department does not make calls to known COVID locations.
Cole warned of the “aging” of the fire department, particularly of the volunteers.
“Volunteerism is declining,” and the “core group” of volunteers is increasingly retiring, he said.
“Our staffing needs do not meet the needs of our city based on population,” the chief said, citing staffing standards of the National Fire Protection Association.
Response time and travel distances also exceed recommended levels, the fire chief said.
The chief said the national recommended average number of firefighters to respond to a house fire is 16, while Graham averaged having 12 in 2020, or 75 percent of the recommended level.
Fee for re-inspections
The fire chief also suggested that the city should consider instituting a fee for re-inspections when the fire inspector inspects local businesses, if the original problems are not fixed, and the businesses do not come into compliance.
Inspection and re-inspection should be done at no cost, he said, but any subsequent re-inspections should be charged a new fee, he recommended.
New fire stations
The fire department needs two satellite fire stations, the fire chief told the council members. Currently, Graham has only one station – at city hall – which he described as “small and outdated,” particularly with regard to newer equipment (fire trucks) that he said are needed.
The fire chief said some mutual aid fire departments feel like they are supplementing “our low staffing levels” by responding to fires in Graham, the chief said.
The chief said a study done on the fire department’s coverage found that only 60.9 percent of the city can be reached within four minutes, which he said is the national standard.
The chief recommended satellite stations in the Rogers Road area between Moore Street and the South Graham park area and along East Harden Street (NC 54) between Ivey Road and near the city’s wastewater plant.
The chief recommended satellite stations that would be about the size of Elon’s relatively new fire station, located on Powerline Road. Each would cost about $2.5 million to build, he said, with $6.5 million included in the proposed departmental budget request, which would include land purchase, architectural fees, etc.
“We’re two years out,” he said, from being able to be in a new satellite fire station.
To hire the additional staff – he listed a total of 18 positions – needed both at the downtown fire department as well as two possible satellites would cost over $1.2 million, he said, acknowledging that such a level could trigger a 10-cent property tax increase. “We know that’s not going to happen,” he said.
However, he suggested that the city consider applying for various grants, although he acknowledged that one current grant provides initial funding for about three years – after which the city would ultimately be expected to finance the positions after that point.
“Now is a wonderful opportunity,” the chief said, to apply for a grant, if, he stressed, the city would be willing to pick up the full expense of the new firefighters after three years.
Recreation and parks
Recreation and parks director Brian Faucette also laid out his requests for additional facilities. Faucette highlighted what he said was a consensus among Graham residents for a soccer complex, as well as for a swimming pool or other “water feature,” such as splash park.
Faucette laid out a long-term list of projects, most associated with the regional park, that, if funded, would cost about $25 million over the next five fiscal years.
The total level of all capital projects from all other parts of the city are $20 million, for a total, 5-year potential cost of $45 million, so the recreation department’s request would consume 55 percent of the city’s entire capital budget.
In terms of immediate capital spending needs, Faucette identified $496,575 that his department needs for new equipment, repairs, and upgrades (to include installing wireless internet service at the bank fishing area at Graham-Mebane Lake) during the upcoming 2021-22 fiscal year that begins July 1.
Faucette also wants the council to move forward with its vision for improving Graham’s recreational amenities, by developing multi-purpose fields at the regional park; installing retractable bleachers and electrically-powered height adjusters for the basketball goals at the Graham recreation center; expanding space for pick-up basketball; expanding parking at Cooke Parke by reducing impermeable (paved) surfaces; and replacing and adding additional boat docks and ramps at the Graham-Mebane Lake.
During his budget brainstorming session, Faucette urged the council to develop a long-range plan for funding replacement of equipment, vehicles, playgrounds, picnic shelters, and other capital needs for the recreation department; to develop a stormwater management plan for the city’s park system; and to plan for road improvements for bicycling and other general transportation.
He also recommended developing a master plan and capital improvement plan for the city’s recreation department.
The recreation director floated the possibility that the city could require developers of large projects (specified as more than four units per project) to pay an impact development fee (which he referred to as an “alternative revenue source”) to fund future development of the city’s recreation and parks department.
As an example, he estimated that a potential impact fee assessed for each of the 1,059 new dwelling units approved since January 2020 would generate approximately $605,748 in new revenue for the city but would have little impact on developers, with the example impact fee ($572) representing about .002 percent of a potential $250,000 sales price, based on figures Faucette presented during the budget workshop.
Active transportation network
Also high on Faucette’s list of spending priorities is incorporating into a master plan an “active transportation network,” which he said would define routes to recreation, shopping, and other entertainment areas but “should also include all of Alamance County,” he told the council. He recommended a “detailed study,” incorporating features such as “comfort amenities” and “wayfinding” within the transportation network.
Public Works, Utilities
Burke Robertson, the city’s public works director, is seeking $1.1 million in additional funding for the streets department to replace equipment and complete resurfacing projects for streets that Graham is responsible for maintaining.
Tonya Mann, the city’s utilities director, pointed to additional demands that growth has created for her department. These include: upgrading the wastewater treatment plant, which is in the initial planning stages; completion of an upgrade to the Boyd Creek pump station; funding for a sewer outfall at the Old Fields subdivision.
The city’s property tax collection rate as of March 2, 2021 was projected at 95.73 percent, versus a collection rate of 97.65 percent at the same point in 2020, according to the city’s finance director, who noted that tax collections account for 41 percent of the budget.
As of January 31 of this year, the general fund took in $9.8 million in revenue, approximately $6.7 million (or 70 percent) of which had been expended. The water/sewer fund had $4.7 million in revenue at the end of January; approximately 58 percent of that amount had been expended.
Most pressing needs within the general fund were “deferred capital equipment/improvement projects,” as well as special events that the city had planned and set aside funds for in the budget for the current fiscal year but canceled due to the statewide shutdown amid the coronavirus pandemic. The city of Graham is estimated to receive $242,000 in coronavirus relief funding, based on figures that were presented to the council at its initial budget workshop.
Interim city manager Aaron Holland pointed out to the council that Graham is growing, citing 133 building permits that were issued for homes during the 2020 calendar year, as well as 966 homes that the council approved last year for six residential developments (Valor Ridge; Riley’s Meadow; Reserve on 54; Council Creek; Cherry Creek; and Bethany Towns).
Other factors that are likely to affect the city’s budget include projected increases in health insurance for city employees. In 2020, $1.7 million in claims were funded through the city’s healthcare provider, based on figures that were presented to the council.