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SUNSET BEACH — Town council is continuing to comb through financial figures in an effort to offset a possible tax increase proposed for fiscal year 2014-15.
Mayor Ron Watts said the town’s goal is not to have a tax increase.
Watts’ remark came near the conclusion of a third council budget work session at town hall May 28, when council continued to scrutinize numbers and look for ways to cut expenditures after town administrator Susan Parker unveiled a proposed 31.4 percent tax increase at the May 5 council meeting.
Debate also ensued about promoting the town between members of the Sunset Beach Business & Merchants Association and town councilman Lou De Vita.
Council also voted 3-2 to implement a 1½ percent cost of living raise and 1 percent bonus for town employees, with no merit increases. The measure was approved by De Vita, Mike Williams and Wilson Sherrill, with Terry Johnson and Carol Scott dissenting.
In response to a question from Watts, town finance director Donna Rogers said changes in revenue to date as well as changes in departmental expenses, coupled with eliminating use of any general funds into revenue, has put projected estimations now about “45 to 50 percent ahead in revenue.”
Council grilled town building inspections director Sandy Wood on personnel in his department and also delved into line items, including vehicles that can patched and repaired in lieu of buying new ones and going up on inspection fees.
The board also reviewed public-works line items, including ongoing work on beach walkways, restroom maintenance and signage.
Scott said the town should contribute to things that add to the ambience of Sunset Beach, including the summer concert series, planetarium and promotional efforts by the chamber of commerce.
“Some things make sense, and as a town we have to find funds to support those kinds of activity,” she said.
De Vita criticized the merchants association website, stating its most recent promotion was for the Little River, S.C., Blue Crab Festival.
“What does that have to do with visiting Sunset Beach?” he asked.
He said the website also has outdated information and video.
“I have a problem that we put up $50,000 and we don’t have any control over the message,” he said.
Association member Pat Wolfe said they are getting assistance with their website from a Wilmington company.
Watts said his concern is the association has just gotten started.
“They haven’t had full cycle at this point,” he said. “There’s no way we can demonstrate getting results from it.”
Scott said she would like to see more of a partnership with the town, “the sense that you’re promoting the town as opposed to just businesses that happen to be members of the merchants association.”
During debate about town salaries, Scott said she would like to eliminate the 1 percent Christmas bonus forever.
“Our salaries should be our salaries,” she said. “There’s no reason to automatically have a 1 percent bonus. Most municipalities don’t do that. There’s just no reason to have that in the budget.”
In response to a question from Watts about the total impact, Rogers said it amounts to $500 each for 44 full-time employees, or $22,000.
Sherrill said cost-of-living “just keeps us in the same market basket in the face of rising prices.” He said he would also like to go to merit raises to recognize certifications and people who have achieved above and beyond day-to-day operations.
Scott criticized the town for not putting money toward its bike and pedestrian plan after it had been allocating $100,000 annually.
With nothing going in, “it means any extraordinary expenses coming out of fund balance again,” she said, citing the town vision plan for N.C. 179-904.
“I think we’ve made some mistakes,” she said.
The board also asked Parker to plan for future canal dredging, which entails survey work before money is collected in the tax district.
Phase 2 park landscaping
The town has already paid $100,000 for design work encompassing Phase 2 of Sunset Beach Town Park.
Parker said money has already been set aside.
“As far as doing planning, we have not done that yet,” she said, adding Withers & Ravel has to earn budgeted money.
“We don’t just give ‘em a check,” she said.
Scott said cited a number of expenses not covered by the grant and money set aside, giving a dock as an example.
Watts said $120,000 for a bulkhead and pier is budgeted for 2015-16.
Parker said there needs to be full discussion to determine what the next steps are, which council does not currently have.
Scott said the town needs to know specific costs associated with Phase 2.
“We do not need to put anything in the budget for this right now,” Watts said.
He and Johnson said use of the park needs to be gauged.
Capital improvement plan
Parker said there is no money for the town to propose a capital improvement plan for bicycle paths, policing, emergency access and a five-year street plan.
“In essence you’re back to your year-to-year plan because you haven’t developed a funding source to that, either cutting funding or staff or raising taxes,” she said.
De Vita said they need to find out where the revenue stream is going and what it’s going to come from.
Parker said there are no added projects because there is no additional money.
Watts wondered if the baseline possibly being “off” would affect the forecast. Parker said even if it’s off it won’t have “that kind of impact.”
Citing parking on Main Street, a dredging district, sidewalks and paths, De Vita noted, “You’ve got other projects coming down the trail that we need to complete. We need to look at all the issues, all the items, strike a priority list, then figure out how we’re going to get there.”
Williams said people he has talked to like the progress in Sunset Beach so “they don’t mind the tax increase. We’re at such a low rate now. That’s why we’re in trouble. So we may have to look at revenue sources of taxes, because that’s how towns survive.”
He said he’s optimistic the town baseline will increase because the town has seen an increase in new construction and sales.
“What is disappointing is the county devaluing Sunset Beach,” he said. “It hurts us when we try to get loans. It has a big impact.”
Rogers said the last time the town tax rate went up was 2011-12 after revaluation. Watts said the reality is when the rate went up, it was “actually a decrease.”
Scott disputed that.
“It doesn’t matter what the tax rate is; it matter what taxes you’re paying,” she said, adding some have “conveniently forgotten the history of some of these things.”
Laura Lewis is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or firstname.lastname@example.org.