Sunday, July 14, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
Ph: 336.228.7851

Mayor, aldermen rank dept. head needs & wants: two fire dept. requests highest; walking trail, new police station, economic developer lowest

Gibsonville’s town department heads told the board that they will need to expend tens of thousands of dollars — sometimes hundreds of thousands — for additional staff, new vehicles and equipment, and repairs or replacement of their department headquarters.

Among the largest requests presented to the aldermen during their annual budget retreat on January 30 were an $80,000 full-time economic developer proposed by town manager Ben Baxley and two new police officers ($124,514), a part-time administrative assistant ($26,982), four patrol cars ($233,376), pay raises, and a new $3 million headquarters suggested by police chief Ron Parrish.

Public works director Rob Elliott requested two new employees, a $54,000 replacement dump truck, and $50,000 annually for a decade to replace the town’s outdated water meters. Also included in the department’s requests was funding to build a multi-use pathway along Burlington Avenue, a project that, over several years, would cost a total of $2.1 million. Elliott told the board in his presentation that funding for the project would also come from outside sources, with the director hoping to secure funds from the state department of transportation. The project didn’t appear to draw the attention of the board, which ranked it as lowest priority overall in a survey taken up at the end of the budget retreat.

Fire chief James Todd asked for $150,000 in renovations to his department’s bathrooms, saying that a later, $60,000 request to replace the fire station’s carpet and repaint its ceiling would come in a later budget year.

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Meanwhile, the town has over $480,000 in annual payments for new vehicles and capital projects already penciled in from past years’ budgets, according to a debt service schedule drafted by Baxley.

During the budget retreat, Baxley also gave the aldermen an overview of what the town could expect in the upcoming budget year, which will begin July 1; the board is expected to hold a public hearing and consider the budget at its June 7 meeting.

The town’s property tax base has seen “modest growth” over the past year, Baxley said, and the sales tax is projected to rise slightly in the coming year, though he said it could “remain flat” due to the strain on the economy under the ongoing pandemic.

The largest expenditures are projected to be department needs, like those presented during the retreat, along with annual increases in health insurance premiums, local government employee retirement system contribution increases, an “across-the-board” salary increase, merit pay, and pay grade progression pay.

For the 2022 budget year, the largest annual payment for capital projects is the extension of water and sewer lines southward to Highways 61 and 70, a step that the board has long-considered as a way to encourage growth in the area. That project, which will demand $135,869 annually for the next 12 years, is expected to cost $1.46 million.

That budget item is followed by the 2019 purchase of a new fire truck. The town will pay just over $92,000 every year until 2026 for the vehicle, which has a total cost of just over $586,000. The town will also start making payments in 2023 on a $315,000 garbage truck, putting $69,767 toward it annually; that debt service has not yet been issued.

Third in line is the town’s sewer rehabilitation project, which began last August and will cost, in total, over $2.5 million. The town will pay $89,372 annually until 2061.

Also included is the construction cost of the community center in 2017, which the town has been paying for since 2017 and will spend $2.26 million on between the upcoming budget year and 2057. The town plans to spend $66,261 to continue paying off the center in the coming year.

Residents’ water and sewer rates are expected to increase as the town follows neighboring Burlington’s lead, though the city’s staff hasn’t determined how much their rates will climb. Baxley also suggested to the board, as he had the year before, that a $1.00 increase to the town’s sanitation fee would generate $38,000 in additional revenue for the town; the fee is currently $8.00 per month. The town manager also suggested that a 75-cent increase to the town’s stormwater fee — now 75 cent per month — would generate $32,000 more annually, for a total of $64,000.

The two-hour-long gathering — condensed from the town’s usual four hours — was comprised of presentations from Gibsonville’s administrative, police, fire, public works, and library departments, with department heads generally requesting a staff increase, new vehicles, more equipment, or repairs to their facilities. The only department not to present was parks and recreation, which had no budget requests.

The requests laid out by the department heads are comprised of larger items, with the final budget being formed over the coming months. More precise, line-item budget requests will go before Baxley in mid-March, with the budget first being presented to the aldermen on May 3.


Administrative department
Presenting for his department, the town manager said the administration staff’s top priority for the upcoming year is completing an update of town’s land development plan, which expires this coming December after 20 years. The $20,000 project will lay out the town’s current development and provide a policy on future development, Baxley explained.

His second priority, and the more costly, is the proposed addition of a full-time economic developer for $80,000. Baxley also suggested the position during last year’s budget retreat, telling the aldermen that the new hire would manage the downtown’s revitalization; business recruitment, retention, and expansion; and promote the town to the public. The economic developer would also be expected to help the town obtain an N.C. Main Street designation and head up grant-writing efforts.

In a survey provided by the town manager following all of the departments’ presentations, the mayor and aldermen had mixed reactions to the proposed economic developer, ranking it as their third lowest priority overall. The request had a similarly low ranking following last year’s budget retreat.

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The town is currently contracting part-time with Chelsea Dickey from the Motley firm and has an economic development committee chaired by Sean Dowell.


Police department
Police chief Ron Parrish gave his pitch for the addition of two police officers and a part-time administrative assistant when he came before the board, citing the continuing residential growth of the town as increasing demands for service for his existing staff.

Parrish has historically received one officer per year from the board, except for the 2015-16 budget year, when he received no new officers. Still, the one officer per year allowance has fallen below the chief’s requests over the years, with Parrish explaining that the department, if “properly staffed” according to this past year’s workload, would go from its current 21 officers to 31.

Under his request for the upcoming year, the two police officers would be hired for $62,257 apiece and the part-time administrative assistant for $26,982, resulting in a total cost of $151,498 for the new hires. To lower the amount for the 2021-22 budget year, Parrish proposed hiring one of the officers halfway through the year.

Supplies for the new officers would include $116,688 for the two patrol vehicles and $16,014 for uniforms and equipment. Parrish also proposed purchasing two replacement patrol vehicles for another $116,688.

The department’s current staffing situation, he told the board, results in two officers on shift to patrol the town. But most calls, he added, require two officers, putting other calls for assistance on hold or resulting in the town asking for mutual aid from nearby departments.
The chief pointed to the risk of burnout on the part of his officers from having to work overtime to accommodate staffing shortages amid increasing calls for service.

Parrish also touched on another of his recurring concerns: pay for his officers. In the past, he has lamented that some from his department have transferred to other areas for better compensation, leaving the town to fork out funds to hire and train new officers.

To reach the nationwide average salary of $62,760 determined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he asked that the town add to its $39,335 starting rate by 5 percent on each officer’s anniversary date until they’ve reached the average. Parrish also asked for authority from the board to hire experienced officers by up to 15 percent above the department’s starting rate.

“This is a small amount to pay in order to recruit and retain experienced officers,” he told the board.

Parrish also brought up his repeated request for a new headquarters, which would require $3 million from the town. The department is now in the midst of conducting a “needs assessment,” with the chief explaining that, upon its completion, he will present findings to the board along with an estimated cost.

The department currently connects to town hall on Main Street and has been described by Parrish as “inadequate” for his staff and an “eyesore.”

The pitch for a new headquarters gained no more traction this year from the board than it did last year. In ranking the chief’s proposal, the aldermen put constructing the new building as their second lowest priority, a step up from last year when it was ranked, overall, as the lowest.

The board did, however, appear more in favor of adding one new police officer for the upcoming year — rather than the two Parrish requested — with four of the six board members listing one new officer as a highest priority.


Public works
Public works director Rob Elliott requested two positions, a public works technician for $23,758 and a sanitation equipment operator for $25,731, to maintain his department’s level of service as the town brings in more residential development. Those positions, he suggested, could be added at the start of 2022.

Elliott also asked for a $54,000 dump truck to replace an aged model and a 36-inch asphalt roller for $19,500 to allow his department to carry out street maintenance, like filling potholes, rather than waiting for a contractor to be available.

The director also reintroduced a proposal for a $35,000 street sign replacement project, which would change out the town’s existing signs to ones that have reflective coatings to make them more visible to drivers at night. The cost of the item would be split over two years, with $17,500 being paid out from the upcoming budget.

Another project which returned to the board was the replacement of meter transmitters across town. The transmitters that Elliott is seeking to replace have stopped production, with the town already installing new models as existing transmitters fail. There are currently 3,800 of the outdated transmitters still in use.

Elliott estimated that a full replacement of the town’s transmitters would cost $500,000 over the course of 10 years, calling for $50,000 annually.


Fire department
While fire chief James Todd didn’t request additional firefighters in the upcoming year, he did emphasize that the department could, in the future, need three additional firefighters, at a cost of $150,000; one part-time, non-benefited firefighter, paid $15 per hour and costing $131,000; and an assistant chief for $70,000.

The department currently has 31 staff members of “various training levels,” Todd told the board during the retreat. Of those, 10 are full-time, 6 are part-time, and 15 are volunteers; 3 of the volunteer staff are solely emergency medical technicians (EMTs). Over the years, he explained, recruiting volunteers has become increasingly difficult, and a number of his firefighters are growing older.

“I think we’ve got a solid group of volunteers who really help us out…but there’s quite a few of them who are about the same age that I am, and it’s a lot harder for me to get up after midnight and run a call,” he said. “I know it’s got to be hard for them. I at least get a paycheck, and they’re doing it as a volunteer.”

Alderman Ken Pleasants lamented the shrinking pool of volunteer firefighters, saying, “I remember, back in the day when I first got on the board, I think [former fire chief and current alderman Clarence Owen] had about 30 volunteers back then. It’s a trend that we really, really need to pay attention to and just the cold hard facts of we’re going to have to pay these people. We’re going to have to have more regular employees.

“I think the reality of it is, 15 to 20 years down the road, there will be no volunteers,” Pleasants said, receiving a nod of agreement from the fire chief.

An additional issue posed by the decrease in volunteers, Todd explained, is that because the state requires a minimum amount of firefighters for the group to keep its status as a department and retain its ISO rating, dipping under that minimum would cause commercial and residential insurance premiums to climb. Conversely, higher ISO ratings result in lower insurance premiums.

In the meantime, Todd requested $150,000 in bathroom renovations to the department. The renovations, which were also requested by the chief during last year’s retreat, would involve changing the layout of the bathrooms to allow firefighters to access some of the department’s showers which are currently unused due to a lack of privacy. One of the bathrooms is original to the department, built in 1975, while the other was added in 1991. The bathroom that doesn’t present a privacy concern has a leak, he said, the source of which hasn’t been found.

Renovations would also include updating the accommodations to meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards and creating storage space.

Still, Todd said that, overall, his fire station is in “good condition” and should continue to serve the town’s needs as new development arrives, so long as the building is regularly upgraded. In his presentation to the board, he explained that he will present capital project requests each year for different areas of the building.

Todd’s second priority for the upcoming budget was replacing three automated external defibrillators (AED) and purchasing two new ones; the department’s current AEDs are over a decade old. The chief explained that AEDs are also not installed in the department’s officer trucks, which are used by the chief himself and the on-call volunteer officer of the week.

As he has in past years, Todd laid out department priorities for later budget years. Requests for the 2022-23 budget year onward include replacing the department’s communication systems for $125,000, replacing the station’s carpet and repainting its ceiling for $60,000, and replacing the station’s generator for $75,000.

In addition to backing the fire chief in regards to future staffing needs, Pleasants suggested that the board should allocate funds for the generator now in case the current model fails before Todd requests a replacement as part of the 2024-25 budget.

In a survey to the aldermen given by the town manager following the department heads’ presentations, the mayor and aldermen gave their highest approval — unanimously “1”s, the highest priority ranking — to bathroom renovations at the fire station as well as the replacement and addition of the five AEDs.


Library director Jessica Arnold broke from her two-year run of making no budget requests to ask that the board of aldermen reclassify her department’s full-time library assistant position as a youth services specialist, a title that she told the board would better reflect the bevy of responsibilities her employee carries out.

Currently, Arnold explained, the employee acts as a back-up supervisor for the library’s part-time staff, develops and runs programs and activities for youth, partners with outside organizations on programming, and publicly represents the library.

The pay raise associated with the title change would be an additional $8,000 annually.


Parks and recreation
The only department with no budget requests was parks and recreation. The town’s manager told the board that the department has been hit especially hard by the pandemic, resulting in far fewer activities and expenditures.


Board fills out “budget priorities exercise”
As was the case last year, the six members on the board of aldermen were directed by town manager Ben Baxley to fill out worksheets ranking department requests from 1, highest priority, to 5, lowest priority.

Baxley did not require the aldermen and mayor to sign their individual sheets, but aldermen Ken Pleasants, Shannon O’Toole, and Yvonne Maizland did during retreat. Mayor Lenny Williams and mayor pro tem Mark Shepherd subsequently signed theirs.

Speaking to a reporter last week, Owen declined to disclose which of the sheets was his and of the exercise said, “That should be private.”

Read our editorial comments on the Gibsonville budget process and the need for full transparency in the board of aldermen’s deliberations:

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