By MIKE WILLIAMS
Pulaski Town Council on Tuesday held public hearings on the town’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2023 along with proposed water and sewer rates.
No one spoke during either of the three hearings, which were available for viewing live on the town’s Facebook page.
The proposed budget for the town, which will likely be approved by council at its June 7 meeting, is balanced at $9.4 million – about 4.2 percent or roughly $400,000 higher than the current year.
Both the water and sewer funds show slight revenue and expenditure increases over the current year as well. Water and sewer customers in the town will see a slight increase in their bills after the beginning of the new fiscal year July 1.
According to the town’s finance department, an average household in Pulaski using 5,000 gallons of usage or less each month will see a $4.10 increase in water and sewer bills.
Town Manager Darlene Burcham presented the general fund, water and sewer budgets to council.
She told council the proposed budget is balanced and, “more accurately reflects our costs of doing business in a more efficient and effective way.”
She called the current fiscal year “interesting.”
“Interesting living through the pandemic with your staff remaining available to do the business of the town each and every day, while businesses, state and federal offices remained closed, and some are still closed. Then quickening our pace as the business community started responding to a healthier business climate as we came out of the major thrust of the pandemic.”
She said a “spotlight” seemed to occur that brought attention to the town with several developers from outside the area suddenly seeking opportunities to do business here.
“New housing options and locations for housing are under review in our community, which will bring us new residents as well as new opportunities for those who already reside here,” Burcham noted.
“The unprecedented receipt of ARPA (American Rescue Act) funds from the federal government also challenges us to think beyond today and identify one-time investments that will reduce our need for major infrastructure expenditures in the future and make our town more attractive to current and future residents.
“The general fund has grown slightly over 4.2 percent. That’s less than half the current inflation rate, and is largely a result of local taxes, which include meals tax, lodging, personal property, business licenses, all which seem to be rebounding as the community comes out of the pandemic and we begin to return to some form of normalcy, although we’re not sure what that’s really going to look like in the long term.
“State revenues reflect a decline as the budget at the state level has yet to be adopted and we’re unsure what to anticipate.”
Burcham told council if state revenue figures in the proposed budget turnout to be wrong, “we will be re-adopting a budget shortly after the first of the fiscal year.” She noted the state figures in the budget proposal are “conservative,” estimated on a worst-case scenario basis.
She said miscellaneous revenues have increased this year due to the implementation of certain activities, “which recover our actual costs of doing business for special services as well as delinquencies. The finance department has taken on the challenge of really going after delinquencies and as I think council is aware we have stepped up our delinquent tax sales and we’ll be having another one in the spring to try to again make sure that people pay their taxes that are due.”
Burcham noted the two-cent real estate tax increase council approved last year for the current fiscal year is included in revenues, but is not planned for use in the Fiscal Year 2023 budget.
“Rather, it will be added to the fund balance (reserve), which comes as a result of a very serious commitment that the council made last year to make sure we grew the fund balance over the next several years and that is our plan for a total of five years,” Burcham said.
On the expenditure side, Burcham said “there is no more important resource in today’s economy than your employees to remain competitive and to retain your dedicated workforce. I have recommended in this budget, several things that are reflected in the increases in individual departmental budgets.
“First of all, we are taking the step to raise the minimum hourly rate to town employees to $15 an hour, effective July 1. Secondly, I am proposing a cost-of-living adjustment of $2,000 for every 40-hour employee. And lastly, and most importantly, to allow for some expectation of future compensation adjustments there will be an implementation of a merit pay system ranging from zero to three percent and averaging two percent on an employee’s anniversary day with the completion of a formal performance review by their supervisor.
“These recommendations as well as the increases that are always associated with health insurance and retirement benefits have been accomplished through belt tightening in individual department requests, moving phone and internet expenses to the IT department in the county, which has saved us considerably and insurance premium reductions, namely in the workman’s compensation area, which means our employees have been performing in a much safer manner than they have in the past,” Burcham explained.
She told council the water and sewer budgets include the second of three years of rate increases that were recommended to council by a consultant last year.
“That recommendation came as a result of the fact that we have not in previous years done small incremental increases in either water or sewer rates, and we had really no ability to fund some required maintenance – let alone the capital investments that are needed in a system that is over 100 years old,” she said.
“This budget as proposed will continue an investment in the operating reserves so that we can assure our auditors that we have at least a 90-day reserve for operations, capital reserves upwards of a half million dollars and the required debt service coverage for the future of 130 percent,” she continued.
Burcham said the budget creates only two new positions in the town’s government – both dedicated to the water filtration plant that she said will allow the town to operate the plant on a 24-7, which will greatly improve the efficiency of the equipment there.
“I think your town government has weathered the pandemic extremely well. That we have come out of that stronger, somewhat different but better prepared to meet any of the challenges that lie ahead. There are clearly unique retail and housing opportunities that are on the horizon that we should take advantage of,” Burcham said.
Also, during Tuesday’s meeting, council approved a resolution honoring Marine Corporal Lewis Kenneth Bausell, a Pulaski native.
Bausell served in the Marine Corps during World War II and on Sept. 15, 1944 threw himself on a grenade to save the lives of his fellow Marines during the Battle of Peleliu. He died from his injuries three days later.
He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor by President Franklin Roosevelt.
The entrance to Pulaski County Middle School, named “Medal of Honor Way,” is named in recognition of Bausell’s sacrifice.
“Medal of Honor Way” will be officially dedicated in the memory of Bausell on Monday at 5 p.m. during a ceremony at the middle school. The community is invited, and a member of Bausell’s family will be in attendance.
Council also approved two additional resolutions – one for National Police Officers Week and the other for National EMS Week.
Established in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy, National Police Officers Week is an observance to pay tribute to law enforcement officers who had made the ultimate sacrifice in the battle against crime, and to recognize current law officers.
National EMS Week was established in 1974 by President Gerald Ford to recognize the important work of emergency services personnel.
Also, council approved a resolution appointing Caroline Smith as the town’s Zoning Administrator.
Council also heard a presentation by Fire Chief Jeff Connor on a Career Development Plan for Pulaski Fire Department personnel.
The department includes 11 paid and 21 volunteer members.