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Residents grill Sunset Beach council about proposed budget

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By Laura Lewis, Reporter

SUNSET BEACH — Residents came armed with questions about the budget at an informal community meeting with Sunset Beach Town Council on Wednesday, May 14.

Their queries follow the May 5 council meeting, when town administrator Susan Parker outlined an initial proposal for a 31.4 percent tax increase for fiscal 2014-15 in order to provide for a balanced budget, an increase of 3.3 cents from 10.5 to 13.8 cents per $100 valuation, to sustain day-to-day operations and capital improvements beyond 2014-15 without reducing the general fund reserve below the recommended 75 percent.

Resident Richard Hilderman cited council for last year portraying former mayor Richard Cerrato as not knowing what he was talking about when he raised questions about town expenditures.

“Now our new town administrator in one year has recommended a 31 to 32 percent (increase),” Hilderman said. “Quite frankly, this is incomprehensible to me.”

If council didn’t see it coming, Hilderman said, that tells him council didn’t have a complete understanding of the budget. And if council did see it coming, Hilderman said, he would like the three council members on the board at that time to explain why they said there would be no tax increase.

“There’s something wrong here,” Hilderman said, drawing applause.

Town councilman Lou De Vita said the town has a bad tax baseline that needs to be fixed.

“Our tax base assessed value of our properties in this town decreased by $30 million from June 2013 to now,” he said. “This is after we put in the sewer system, which was supposed to (bring) an uptick in revenues because we had lots that are not buildable that are now buildable.”

Town councilman Mike Williams said he totally concurs with what De Vita said.

“We’re going line item by line item,” he said.

Williams said they will start looking seriously at expenses and what can be cut to keep the budget neutral at this time.

Fellow council member Carol Scott said she spent four years voting against a number of expenditures she has been concerned about. She said the town has spent the last two years using money out of fund balance.

“I will continue to look very carefully at expenditures so that we are not in a negative position,” she said.

Carol Santavicca, who leads the town planning board, asked how property values went down when it’s not a reassessment year.

“That would seem to me to be one of the biggest questions to ask the county,” she said.

Sunset Beach Mayor Ron Watts said it’s a valid question that has been given to the county.

“In theory, values aren’t supposed to change in a four-year period,” he said.

Resident George Johnson said increasing taxes isn’t the problem.

“The problem is our spending,” he said. “You have really got to get it under control. Guys, get it under control. You can’t continue to go out and say the tax base is wrong. As long as you keep getting more money, you guys are going to spend it.

“You have got to live within your means,” Johnson said, drawing more applause as he added, “Please, try and do a better job.”

Resident Gene Steadman thanked council for everything it has done to improve the town. He said the issue isn’t a lack of revenue but policies that have kept businesses from opening.

“Get businesses to come in here, pay more taxes, fund improvements, raise the reserve,” he said. “It can be done.”

Several members of the Sunset Beach Merchant Association faulted council for not doing enough to promote the town.

“I’d like council to be more offensive than defensive; the way we do that is to run it like a business,” said Pat Wolfe. “A lot of these people in this room are asking the town to spend money. You can’t have it both ways. It’s got to be a balancing act. Tourism is key.”

Combing through the budget, Darren Bouley said he doesn’t see anything for marketing.

“This community seems to be fairly lacking when you look at accommodations tax and how it has declined,” he said. “You’re really not marketing this wonderful community we live in.”

Watts said nothing is proposed in the current year. Williams said the town gave $50,000 last year to the merchant association as a first real attempt to try and do some kind of marketing for Sunset Beach.

“We’re trying to put together a plan for next year,” he said. “Until we decide how much money there is, we don’t know what their budget will be.”

He said the town is being promoted in state-wide magazines, “so, yes, there is marketing taking place.”

Watts said he expects to know more after council’s budget work session May 21. He said half the proposed increase is basically in lieu of drawing on fund balance and that the other half is to “handle capital requests council directed.”

He said the next step is to meet with Parker and department heads.

Parker said she has had to look at basic services for citizens and visitors.

“Anything above that is where we can go into marketing,” she said.

“We have just touched the surface of where we’re going to be,” Scott said. “Give us a chance to go through the process. We have just started.”

Cerrato questioned past expenditures, including raises for town employees, with the town paying $500,000 annually that’s 10 percent of the operating budget.

“I was taught if you fail to recognized mistakes of the past, you will repeat them,” he said. He asked what council’s plan is “to restore trust and credibility, which have been violated, because we have not been properly informed.”

Scott said what has been recommended doesn’t mean it’s been passed.

“Scream if you want,” she said. “I’ll scream with you.”

She said she does not think the town will have a 32 percent tax increase.

“I will work toward having no tax increase,” she said.

Cerrato asked council members if they support a salary increase.

Williams responded employees are important to the town.

“I’m not going to answer yes or no,” he said.

Scott said she does not favor a salary increase.

“It has more to do with where raises have been the last four to five years,” she said.

De Vita said he will know more when he sees the numbers.

Town council Terry Johnson said he’d be hard-pressed not to give employees incentive for their hard work, but the town must have a balanced budget. Until that happens, “I don’t see how we can give salary increases (and) bonuses,” he said.

 

Laura Lewis is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or llewis@brunswickbeacon.com.