Robbins Looks to Attract Businesses
Robbins took a step forward Thursday night to bring new businesses to town.
The town commissioners took a seldom-used path to form an advisory panel on micro-loans. They did it after hearing a grim budget message from Town Manager Brant Sikes.
The worldwide economic downturn will hit Robbins, just like other places, even as the town works to improve its future prospects and get its water and sewer fund into the black, according to Sikes.
One strategy for the future of the town is the RobbinsAlive! plan known as REAP, for Robbins Economic Advance-ment Project.
Some $50,000 is coming as part of the second grant phase of STEP to be used for a micro-loan fund.
Micro-loans are small amounts entrepreneurs need to help with startup costs. As they are repaid, that money is available for other new businesses. The panel, once appointed, will present recommended applicants to the town board, which will have final approval.
Applications to be on the panel are available at the town office, and commissioners will call a special meeting after the required 30-day application period to go over the applications and name the board's first members.
Passing this Thursday night required approval by four out of five commissioners. Mayor Theron Bell has no vote, except in case of a tie. Commissioner Frank Marley has generally opposed such rapid measures, and voted no -- but only after waiting to be sure there were four votes to pass the measure.
Sikes and his newly hired marketing director will be available to assist and advise that panel, but state law does not allow municipal employees to serve on any board or in any municipal office.
The news in his budget message was not especially good, though he was able to report a number of recent encouraging events.
Robbins received a $400,000 grant that will help replace aging under-performing (or non-performing) water meters. The town had lost 48 percent of the water it buys from neighboring Montgomery County in unaccounted ways.
That unaccounted water loss has recently been cut by 30 percent, though it remains unacceptably high, Sikes told the board.
"Approximately 30 percent of unaccounted-for water has been identified," he said, illustrating his written report with a slide presentation. "We determined that about 42,000 gallons per day is being lost using it for chemical feed systems at the wastewater treatment plant."
A study he commissioned by McGill Associates showed a way to cut that loss by using a reclamation pump. Even factoring a $31,000 capital expenditure to buy the pump, and electricity costs of around $1,100 a year to operate it, would save the town money from the start.
Sikes showed on a graph how Robbins would save $2,549 the first year of water reclamation, and more than $36,000 every year thereafter.
That still leaves a great deal of missing water to account for, he said. Some is lost when meters don't read accurately. Some don't read at all, and Sikes said the town is working to locate and replace them.
Some is lost to leaks the town is working to locate and patch. More water is simply stolen by illegal connections, according to his report.
That brought an exclamation from Commissioner Mary Wood.
"They ought to be arrested!" Wood said.
Sikes said one water thief had been identified and given the chance to pay instead.
"A court would probably not give us as much money," he said. "But we will go after illegal taps aggressively."
Next year will still be one of crisis for the struggling town. Robbins expanded its facilities trying to keep its biggest water customer, a poultry processing plant, open. Within the year, the plant closed its doors anyway, leaving the town with a huge debt to pay.
There was some relief on debt service last year from the state. That won't happen again.
"The total debt service in 2006-2007 was $37,730.83," Sikes said. "In 2007-2008, the amount is $149,268.24. Our costs are going up. There has been a dramatic increase in the cost of fuel and supplies. Our fuel price has increased by 21 percent during 2007-2008 and is still climbing."
A recent rate increase will help, but his projections show not enough to bring the water/sewer fund into the black.
"Despite accomplishments of 2007-2008, that have slowed the rate of cash depletion, our net assets continue to decline," Sikes said. "At the current rate, all cash will be depleted before the Enterprise Fund is self-sufficient. Our revenues were greater than in the previous year, but lower than projected -- maybe as much as 15 percent lower."
Under-registering water meters, unaccounted for water and unrealistically low usage on some accounts are the principal reasons for lower revenue, which will be approximately $218,712 more than last year, Sikes said.
Looking to Cut Costs
Robbins has cut back everywhere it can find a way to cut, and is still looking, Sikes said.
"The town remains in financial jeopardy," he said. "I am proposing a budget of $1,906,016. That is a 2.5 percent increase over current amended budget.
"Expenses with the 2008-2009 budget, even trimmed significantly, will still need $209,416 appropriated from fund balance. Our total revenues are projected at $1,696,600 before appropriation of fund balance. $32,863 is from the reserved Powell Bill Fund, but this leaves $176,553 being appropriated from the unreserved fund balance. That is $12,626 less than was appropriated during the 2007-2008 fiscal year."
Revenue is going down, expected to be less than in previous years, but costs are going up. His report is based on conservative revenue prediction, because of these variables, Sikes said.
The town will be looking for cost savings in all departments, knowing that essential services must be delivered in accordance with federal, state, and local regulations.
Sikes does not recommend raising the town's property tax rate, but the outlook for next year is not a rosy one. Copies of the budget are available at town hall for public inspection.
"In the next year, we will be faced with declining revenues from traditional sources, an uncertain economy, and rising costs of operation," Sikes said. "This trend cannot continue without significant financial consequences."
Contact John Chappell at 947-4962 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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