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(Photo by Jaymie Baxley/The Pilot)

The Southern Pines Town Council took an initial look at funding priorities for the coming year during a daylong budget retreat held Wednesday. Town Manager Reagan Parsons laid out a preliminary draft budget based on a flat tax rate of 40 cents.

The annual tax rate has varied between 34 cents and 40 cents since 2006.

Parsons noted an increase of 2.74 percent over last year’s property valuation by Moore County is indicative of the ongoing, steady growth the town has experienced in recent years. The flipside of that development has put pressure on town services and, as a result, the need to hire additional municipal staff in the planning department. The town’s fire and police departments would also like to see more resources allocated to fill out their ranks as well.

The draft budget does not take into account any anticipated funding from the American Recovery Plan. This latest round of federal economic stimulus as the nation continues its recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic includes the first direct financial assistance provided to towns.

Southern Pines is in line to receive around $4.3 million but, thus far, information on how that money can and cannot be spent has been limited. According to current ARP guidance, investments in water, sewer and broadband infrastructure could be funded with allocations. It could also be potentially used, Parsons hypothesized, for things like stormwater projects or parking improvements that would bolster the downtown shopping district.

For a town like Southern Pines, which relies on sales taxes to provide around 28 percent of its annual budget revenue, the onset of the pandemic and resulting business closures and restrictions created a sense of panic during budget planning last spring.

However, thanks to some unexpectedly good timing, a North Carolina law requiring businesses to collect and remit sales tax for online purchases began Feb. 1, 2020. As a result, the impact on sales tax revenue losses was far less than anticipated.

“First and foremost, the Treasury Department has not released rules on spending the money except for a very general discussion about revenue replacement,” Parsons said. “To plan to spend that money ahead (of guidance) is a recipe for disaster.”

Instead, he anticipated a special called meeting would be held to consider potential projects once more information is available. He also encouraged town leaders to earmark any unfunded items they would like to see prioritized as they reviewed the proposed draft budget.

On the utilities side, the 2021-2022 draft budget includes a 4 percent increase in both the water and sewer base rates, effective July 1. As presented, that will result in an overall increase of approximately $2.66 per month or $31.92 annually per household.

Parsons also recommended a slight increase of $1 per month in residential waste handling fees to offset increasing hauling costs. The increased fee rate will generate an estimated additional $80,400 in revenue.

Councilman Mike Saulnier noted the town last year had delayed implementation of a stepped approach to increase waste collection fees, to keep up with rising processing costs.

“I don’t think this is an unreasonable request,” Saulnier said.

The Southern Pines Town Council has tentatively scheduled the first of two public budget hearings on Tuesday, May 11.

Planning Department Needs

Looking to get “the most bang for our buck,” Parsons recommended hiring a new community development planner who would also focus on the town’s long-range planning needs.

“We are at our wit’s end as far as workload. (Planning Director) BJ Grieve has a fantastic dedicated staff, but there are a number of projects that come through,” he said. Much of this staff time is spent meeting with developers prior to the application process. “Not to say this isn’t time well-spent. That effort can save a lot of time, money and argument down the road. But in many ways, it can be the majority of time spent.”

The town is required to update its Comprehensive Long Range Plan, which is basically the blueprint that guides future planning decisions, within the next 24 months. Parsons said it would not be prudent to push a project of that importance onto the desks of a departmental staff already working at maximum capacity.

Councilman Mitch Lancaster agreed and recommended that person “needs to be hired sooner rather than later.”

Mayor Pro Tem Paul Murphy said it would also be helpful if the person hired into the role “would be someone from a community like West Southern Pines.”

In February, town leaders approved a contract with the Development Finance Initiative (DFI) to study a nearly 20-acre tract in West Southern Pines on Morganton Road. DFI is a UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government sponsored program that partners with communities to provide specialized real estate development and finance expertise for transformative projects. The town had previously engaged DFI in March 2020 in support of neighborhood revitalization efforts in West Southern Pines. During that project, this particular parcel was identified as a key opportunity.

Parsons said the new planner would serve as a liaison between DFI, the town and the neighborhood “task force” that will be formed to assist with planning and generating public input.

In a related discussion on growth and development, Parsons also recommended the addition of an engineering technician position to assist with field inspections of new development projects. He explained that many new structures involve the addition of new civil infrastructure,

“It’s an important aspect to make sure we have people on site,” Parsons said, to review and provide careful inspections of infrastructure to protect the town. “A new hire engineering technician would help us keep up with an ever increasing demand for various public works permits and site plans associated with residential and commercial development.”

Public Safety Requests

Public safety expenditures, including fire and police, account for the largest outlay in the annual budget. As the town has grown, demand on these services has also increased resulting in the need to hire additional personnel.

In 2014, town leaders approved the first property tax increase in six years primarily to fund two new police officer positions. The 2017 budget included another incremental tax rate increase for additional officers plus other expenditures reflective of a growing town, including breaking ground for the new fire station.

The town also received a three-year federal SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant, in 2018, that provided funding to hire six new firefighters.

During discussion on Wednesday, Town Manager Reagan Parsons said both departments are looking for additional resources to be allocated in the upcoming fiscal year.

Southern Pines Police have requested funding to convert one part-time telecommunications position to a full-time role, in addition to hiring two new police officers for the town’s directed patrol/special investigations unit. The officers would provide additional manpower and coverage for other department members on leave or testifying in court. The estimated cost for hiring two new officers, including salaries, benefits, and vehicle purchase, would run about $300,000.

“It is a sign of things going well when the majority of issues are related to speeding,” Parsons said, “but the reality is, there are a lot of concerns about speeding.”

He also noted that growth in the area is not necessarily tied to the resident population. Both Aberdeen and Southern Pines have expanding commercial interests that attract a lot of daytime traffic for shopping or other business needs.

Mayor Pro Tem Paul Murphy said hiring new officers could provide more community policing options.

“We have somewhat of a poignant opportunity. When you say feet on the street, we say feet on what streets? It can seem like we’re only looking at downtown or new developments but there may be other streets that have some more direct needs. This is an opportunity for our police department to reflect a type of diversity,” Murphy said. “It’s intentionality can be a positive thing. I don’t want us to miss out on the opportunity to enhance those aspects as far as the educational piece which I see as (improved) communication.”

Parsons responded that the directed patrol unit moves around the community based on where they may be a known concern. For instance, he said, if there is an uptick in car break-ins in a specific area, the unit can focus its time and energy to that need on a temporary basis.

“It isn’t about one aspect or neighborhood as much as having flexible pieces of the puzzle to augment and support what is being provided in every neighborhood,” Parsons said.

The new fiscal year draft budget also includes a request from Police Chief Nick Polidori to implement a five-year plan ($40,000 annually) to outfit officers with body cameras. Parsons said camera technology, security and storage solutions have all improved substantially in recent years.

“I commend our former police chief, Bob Temme, for taking a wait-and-see approach. There have been a lot of hard lessons learned across the country...but clearly with what is going on in the world, now is the time to get into this.”

Parsons also presented information related to the fire department’s request to hire additional firefighters, and provide promotional opportunities for personnel. The request is based on a long-term plan to fill out the department’s ranks to keep up with growth and the addition of the town’s second fire station, near the Moore County Airport.

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