HAMLET — Council members took metaphorical lopping shears to the proposed 2018-19 budget Tuesday, leaving only three items untouched: a resurfaced basketball court in south Hamlet, two alarm-enhanced air packs for firefighters and a newish truck to pick up plant debris.
They also voted for a new system of calculating water and sewer rates, as well as fees for such things as notary services and planning permits.
“We may could wait till six months out” in the budget year to reconsider some items, council member Johnathan Buie proposed. Because the city usually takes in more money than it projects it will, council members could prevent “going too deep” too soon with budget cuts, he said.
The matter that stirred the most discussion before ultimately being tabled for a later look-see was the Police Department’s request for $48,000 to finance a gang/narcotics officer.
Council member Jesse McQueen repeatedly said he wanted more concrete justification for such an officer; he wasn’t sure the rates of violent crime merited such an expense.
He faced push-back from other members — notably, former Rockingham Police Chief Eddie Martin, who said he would like to see such an officer, provided the city hired “the right one” — and from audience member Officer Chad Haywood, who had presented his department’s budget requests in March in a dramatic PowerPoint presentation.
“Right now, (gang activity)’s just a seed,” Haywood said. “We don’t want it to fester into a flower.”
Council members asked to see a plan for how such an officer would be hired and used, as well as current crime statistics before making a final decision.
So the gang officer’s position joined the temporary scrap heap with a car for city administrators ($21,000), an increase in demolition financing ($25,000, bringing the total to $50,000), new entrance signs at city limits ($15,000), a used pickup for firefighters to refurbish ($14,000), a police cruiser ($36,517), seven M-4 assault rifles for police officers ($4,550) and Tsunami cameras to post at public events ($24,000).
The air packs raised nary a peep of discussion, but members adamantly fought to keep in the budget the $60,000 it would take to repave the courts at South Hamlet Park. That item, several said, was one of the few in the budget directly affecting Hamlet residents.
Maybe the resurfacing would “cause the young folks down there to play more basketball,” said Martin, who last year also proposed replacing shoddy playground equipment at the park.
A group of students playing basketball on the courts Tuesday afternoon welcomed the idea of repaving the courts.
“They need it,” said Ezekiel Gissendaner, 14, who said he lives nearby and uses the courts often. He said repaving the courts would hopefully clean up the broken glass that litters the court.
“One slip and you’re done,” Gissendaner said.
Public Works Director Billy Stubbs volunteered to keep fixing the city’s balky trucks to save money, but — after hearing that one of said trucks couldn’t make it back and forth to Rockingham without being towed — council members thanked him for his parsimonious spirit but decided the truck was an immediate need.
Coming in at $8,254,725, the draft budget would have required a $743,075 withdrawal from city savings to make it balance. Council members’ proposed cuts totaled about $113,000, leaving about $100,000 still required from fund balance.
They won’t make up the deficit, but starting July 1, water and sewer fees will be assessed by usage, plus a base fee. The base fee for water will be $18 and for sewer use, $13. Users will be charged per 1,000 gallons, with the fees rising as use rate climbs.
The change rids the city of its old system of charges, which combined a base fee with minimum amounts of water or sewer use that some folks never met. Thus, some bills will drop and others rise, though minimally.
Council members found the new billing system more equitable and liked that it also allowed the city to apply — possibly more successfully — for needed grants because its fee structure will be in line with most of the rest of the cities in North Carolina.
Fees for such things as broken locks, meter tampering, tapping into the water system and special zoning requests also will rise in the new budget year.
The Council will vote to approve the budget next month.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]