Rockingham city officials were in good spirits at Tuesday’s annual city budget planning retreat at Hinson Lake’s Rotary Lodge.
“The economic downturn and general business climate has had an impact on most communities,” said City Manager Monty Crump. “Fortunately, ours to a lot less of a degree. Everything’s not perfect and we could do better. The budget has flattened out, and we haven’t had any layoffs or cutbacks. The downside is that we’ve not been able to give raises. We did give a Christmas bonus of a one-time pay increase of $300. We may be able to do that again.”
While other cities have to pull themselves out of the recession by their boot straps, Rockingham prides itself in not having to.
“The fact of not having to recover puts us ahead in a lot of ways,” said Crump.”I understand that with increased cost of health-care and gas it does squeeze the budget, but it’s being managed right from a morale standpoint. Everybody has had cuts and almost everyone has some level of funding.”
The budget plan consists of 65 pages of charts, graphs and numbers broken down by department and service, revenue and funding. Hazel Tew, in charge of city finance, puts the budget plan together every year.
“There’s a lot of historical information in here,” said Crump. “Hazel Tew has done a real good job of forecasting. It doesn’t happen overnight. It happens over the years.”
In the budget plan, each department has a breakdown of expenditures, compared side by side with the past five years. This allows officials to monitor trends, ask about changes and review how well the budgets from previous years met the demands of each department.
Crump mentioned that while the city maintains similar budgets to the past few years, there are ongoing projects in and around the city that work to enhance the area, but at no great cost to the city.
“Hitchcock Creek and the East Rockingham sewer project are upgrades that are supported and provided for by funding and grants,” said Crump. “Our ability to get grants says an awful lot about us. We have a sound financial record, and folks that fund these projects can come and see their money years later.”
Among other discussions by the Rockingham Mayor Gene McLaurin and Crump, it was noted that after this year there will be five annual payments left on city hall.
“I’m comfortable with our size budget and cash flow,” said Crump.
Assistant Manager Sabrina McDonald gave her report on the Safety Program first.
“We continue to be a productive agent in workplace safety,” she said. “Our employees have been exposed to health info like heat, power tools and men’s health.”
McDonald reported on the implementation of a on-sight mobile service that comes around and takes the employees’ blood pressure and addresses other concerns they may have. She also said the Safety Program partnered with FirstHealth in an attempt to secure funding for a community garden, but they were denied a grant. McDonald said they will seek other avenues to make it happen.
“Our Facebook has over 700 fans that ‘like’ it,” she said. “Our goals are to continue to find ways to save without compromising, looking into grants and updating our Facebook page more often so people know what’s going on.”
Rockingham Police Chief Robert Voorhees gave his report on the police department. He said he was alarmed by the monetary trends he has seen. Things that were free for police departments in the past now come with a fee mandated by the state, such as SBI fingerprinting. Certain necessary forms that were printed before now must be ordered in advance for a fee.
“The state budget is a moving target,” said Voorhees. “What other fees are they going to push down to us? This is a unique environment. If you look for the hidden cost; it’s a redistribution of the tax burden, and the only thing left to do is to pass it on as fees for citizens.”
Voorhees said some changes have taken place within the department. Supervisors have been trained to tranquilize animals, so that in the event of a bear confrontation, that bear need not be shot, but instead can be tranquilized and moved to a safer place. There are plans to purchase new cruisers this year. A mandatory vest policy may be put in place, making it necessary for officers to wear a bullet proof vest constantly. Each vest costs about $600. The officers will have their sidearms upgraded as well. The department has been carrying the same weapons for 17 years. They will trade in their old guns for new ones.
All officers will be issued a video and audio recording lapel clip at the cost of $99 a piece. This will reduce police liability.
Ordinances from Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Burke County that restrict chaining dogs are under review by city council, that will look to adopt a similar ordinance. Most ordinances have time restrictions, which Voorhees said would be difficult to enforce because of a lack of man-power and time. They can enforce the ways in which an animal is tethered, however. If the dog is tied up in such a way that inflicts bodily harm, or if harm can come easily, those people may be fined.
Rockingham Fire Chief Charles Gardner said the station’s shortage of child seats has come to an end. Grants from the Department of Insurance and Wal-Mart have made it possible to purchase more child seats, and FirstHealth has supplied some as well. A few more staff members have become certified to install child seats.
Making changes in the daily operations has helped cut back on costs. Running smaller trucks to rescue calls cuts down on wear and tear on the larger trucks. This budget reflects less anticipated spending than last year because the tires that needed to be replaced on all trucks and other vehicles have been. Uniforms are also needed, and the cost of gear continues to climb. It costs around $3,000 per person to be suited for work, “and all of our people get two sets,” said Gardner.
Larry Harrelson reported on Buildings, Gardens and Cemeteries. He said most everything will stay the same. His staff will be mowing the grass alongside Highway U.S. 1, because DOT wasn’t mowing often enough, “so we don’t have a ratty looking entrance to town,” added Crump. Harrelson said retired street-sweeper Kenny Rogers has been replaced by an employee who covers the route in a few hours and then takes on another task.
“It’s like having two new employees,” said Harrelson.
Richard Haugen, in charge of Water and Sewer, Streets, Sanitation and the maintenance shop said the construction uptown on Franklin street “is in full swing” and will receive a new curb during the first part of next week. Things are moving forward, despite “hassles from the state and AT&T.”
Haugen said the East Rockingham sewer connections will be complete in the next few years, and money from the original funding for it is left over and can be used for other projects. He also discussed root control. Sewer lines that run along the old lake bed and other out-of-town areas that make it difficult to get to with equipment must be treated for roots that grow into them and clog them. Dukes Root Control has sprayed herbicides which keep the roots from blocking the pipes.
Haugen said his department will need a new street-sweeping vehicle this year. The one they have is 12 years old “and it’s shot,” he said. Haugen was proud of the fact that many of the departments work together instead of contracting out, when possible. Much of the work is still contracted out, such as tearing down dilapidated dwellings, which cost more to tear down than the eventual property is worth.
“That’s why so many cities don’t do it,” said Crump.
Eddie Byrne, in charge of the water plant, said the plant meets all requirements, and the department received a certificate from the state for “turbidity removal” which means cleaning the water.
“Everything is going real good,” he said. “When we have an issue another department will step in and help out. We’re looking forward to another year.”
Larry Cobler of the Waste-water Treatment Plant said the new system is working well. They have been taking their sludge to Polkton’s landfill. They used to take it to the game-lands after processing it with wood chips, of which they could take three tons at a time. Now they haul 24 tons at once, but it is concentrated waste. The new truck they are using needs to be filled with gas once every two weeks. Cobler said the sludge production has doubled, and water flows are down. The chemicals needed to more heavily process the sludge and run the machinery harder is costing the plant more.
John Massey, Rockingham planning director, said things look better this year than last. Renovation inside the old Wal-Mart is on-going as other businesses look to enter there. Hitchcock Creek and Franklin Street projects are both going well, however Progress Energy still has yet to indicate when they plan to be finished with removing the unused overhead power lines.
Dave Davis of Parks and Recreation has added three new fields to make 14 total around Rockingham. Although short-staffed and faced with upgrades that cost more than anticipated, Davis does not want to raise his fees. He said there hasn’t been a fee increase in five or so years. He especially does not want to raise the fee for families with multiple children. The public pool costs the P&R department each year, as it has been in compliance with standards since it was built in 1978. However, an underground stream presses against the floor of the pool, keeping it from ever being drained. Without water to hold the floor down, the stream will pop through.
“We have what we need,” said Davis. “We’ll soldier through a few more months.”
Mark Colbenson, director of the community theatre, thanked the city.
“What you do for the theatre is outstanding,” he said. “You will never find a better theatre job out there. It was not my intent to move on so quickly but my tenure is up.”
Staff Writer Dawn Kurry can be reached at (910) 997-3111 ex. 43, or by e-mail at email@example.com.