Mount Airy officials approved an $18.4 million budget for the city Thursday night over the objections of one councilman who complained about a lack of discussion over the 2022-23 spending plan and related issues.
The municipal budget for the upcoming fiscal year that begins on July 1, adopted in a 4-1 vote with Commissioner Jon Cawley dissenting, keeps the property tax rate at 60 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The charge for water and sewer service also is unchanged.
While the $18.4 million general fund package — which does not include Mount Airy’s water-sewer operation — is the same figure first proposed when the proposed budget was unveiled last month, it does reflect a recent addition.
That involves an expenditure totaling $201,150 in appropriations for the Surry Arts Council ($87,500), Mount Airy Public Library ($103,650) and Mount Airy Museum of Regional History ($10,000), an annual provision that had been omitted in the preliminary budget.
Ongoing city funding next year for the Mount Airy Rescue Squad, $10,000, and Mount Airy-Surry County Airport, $20,000, wasn’t slashed.
The Mount Airy Board of Commissioners restored the funding to the other agencies after a crowd showed up at its previous meeting on June 2 to object to the cuts specifically for the arts group and museum. In the case of the library and Surry Arts Council, which occupy buildings owned by the city government, structural improvements eyed for those are planned which apparently were meant to make the loss of the annual allocations more palatable.
City Manager Stan Farmer explained Thursday night that to avoid increasing the budget to accommodate the extra $201,150, a capital improvement fund was decreased to provide the extra funding and keep the bottom-line numbers the same.
“We added, but we took away,” Farmer said.
The general fund budget for 2022-23 is about 24% higher than that adopted last June for the present fiscal year that ends on June 30, totaling $14.9 million.
It includes $3.2 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act, COVID-relief funding allocated to Mount Airy which is reflected in the overall budget and largely targeted for facility improvements and equipment additions among the various municipal departments.
The passage of the budget Thursday night was accompanied by sharp criticism by Commissioner Cawley over how the city budgetary process was handled and the future financial outlook.
He charged that there was a lack of public discussion on the spending plan, pointing to the fact no budget workshop was conducted. In recent years, Mount Airy officials have held such a special meeting, sometimes lasting several hours, to hammer out various details, but this year other city leadership opted not to do so, Cawley said.
“It’s something we’ve always had,” said the North Ward commissioner and mayoral candidate, who added that he never failed to learn key facts during those sessions and is “disappointed” that none occurred this year.
“I have missed that process very much,” Cawley said of the void left behind. “It’s not acceptable to me.”
The dissenting councilman also raised concerns about how this year’s inflated budget package might adversely impact the city property tax rate for the next, 2023-24 fiscal year in terms of a possible increase.
Cawley mentioned that there will be some carryover expense from the American Rescue Plan Act projects, and also cited a $1,500 raise for full-time municipal employees in next year’s budget which will be ongoing. He questioned if this situation is sustainable over time.
“And I really want an answer.”
Other officials respond
In reaction to Cawley’s comments, fellow council members said they were satisfied with the budget process led by the city manager, to whom some of Cawley’s criticisms were leveled.
“I think it’s a good budget going forward,” Mayor Ron Niland said.
The mayor also believes the package just passed won’t necessarily affect next year’s budget, as argued by Cawley.
“What we do next year will be next year,” Niland said.
Commissioner Steve Yokeley agreed:
“The budget is not really dependent on past years and it doesn’t really depend on future years.”
The city manager also weighed in on that issue, indicating that higher-than-normal spending this year because of the injection of federal dollars shouldn’t be the case for 2023-24 and there’s no real reason to think taxes will rise.
“There could be other efficiencies, other revenue sources,” Farmer said, which could be in play and offset any need for a property tax increase.
The mayor, who is running to retain his seat against Cawley this year, also referred to comments by Cawley directed toward Farmer.
“I think we need to be a little kinder when we take on city staff,” said Niland, who expressed support for the job Farmer is doing.