By MIKE WILLIAMS
The Town of Pulaski is currently “doing very well” with its current budget, as far as revenues and expenditures are going. That was the good news presented to Town Council on Tuesday by Town Manager Darlene Burcham and Finance Director Jackie Morris.
Morris provided council with an update on the current operating budget – in terms of revenues and expenditures so far this fiscal year.
“I think it’s advantageous for you to have this type of briefing as we in the next month or so, move into the actual development of a budget itself [for next fiscal year],” Burcham told council.
“I will tell you just as a bottom line that we’re doing very well on both fronts [revenue and expenditures].”
“We are where we should be with two weeks shy of finishing the third quarter and one quarter left to go,” Morris said.
Morris did note the town’s cigarette tax revenue is coming in a little lower than was anticipated. She recalled that the tax rate was increased to 40 cents on July 1, prompting everyone to anticipate higher tax revenues from that revenue stream.
She told council that, at Burcham’s suggestion, she sent out two finance department staff members to speak with 10 vendors in the town in which tax stamps are sent. She said the two found that the vendors are in compliance with having the tax stamps on the cigarette packs. She said they questioned the vendors on cigarette sales – whether they had noticed a difference in sales in an effort to learn why tax revenue is so low with the tax rate increase.
Morris said of the 10 vendors visited, four had noticed a significant decline in sales.
“We’re not sure if people are cutting back on smoking, if it’s the price or they’re just going elsewhere to get their cigarettes,” Morris said.
Morris also addressed the convenience fee charge – a charge that town customers pay when they come in and pay fees and taxes with a debit or credit card.
“We had been accepting those payments and not imposing a fee on customers. Of course, we were being charged by the banks and the town was absorbing that cost and those fees were getting pricey,” she said.
Last July, at the start of the new fiscal year, the town began charging $1.75 on transactions in which customers chose to pay with a card.
“That has helped,” she told council, but she noted the convenience charge may have to go up.
“I have spoken with Miss Burcham – just looking at the month-to-month with the charges and then what we have coming in and the credit card company charges, depending on the type whether it’s Visa, MasterCard or American Express, they each charge a percentage based on the dollar amount. If it’s a normal month where it’s just water bills, you don’t see that much of a change. I think tax time is where it’s hitting us because the dollar amount is increasing so much that the percentage they’re charging compared to our $1.75 – there’s just no comparison.”
Morris said she had discussed with Burcham the possibility of increasing that convenience charge in the next budget just so the town can come out even with the bank charges.
“We are not making anything off them. It is not extra revenue for the town. It’s just simply trying to cover costs that we’re having to pay out that the banks are charging.”
Morris and Burcham noted that Pulaski County has begun imposing a convenience fee. Morris said their fee is
2.9 percent of the amount of the transaction.
“But our philosophy on putting that into place during the budget last year was to have people who are benefiting from the service pay for it. In the same way that we made some other changes to various fees and charges, and the people that are using credit cards to pay we felt should be paying for that additional service and not the town absorbing it which we had been absorbing it completely up to that point. This year, we’re recovering most of it, but not all of it and so we will be looking at that as well as other fees during the budget process,” Burcham told council.
Burcham asked if the convenience fee is “kind of accepted at this point.”
“Pretty much,” Morris responded. “You have some that are not happy, but I mean you have a choice. You don’t have to pay with a card,” Morris said, noting the town accepts cash, checks or money orders for payment.
On the expenditure side of the budget, Morris said the town is pretty much on target with its budget for the fiscal year.
Burcham asked Morris to explain one of the strategies employed this year to keep expenditures in line.
“We currently each month print out a report for each of the department heads so they can see where they’re at with spending in their department to keep from things getting out of control. Having the department heads have more hands on, making them more aware and more responsible of their budget has been very helpful. I think it’s made a difference as you can see within our totals. They do not have the flexibility to spend as freely as they want, that’s monitored more closely, which as you can see has worked.
“Miss Burcham also gets a report every month of every revenue line and every expenditure line for all the departments, and I assure you she is going through each of those reports with a fine-tooth comb. And then we both go through them monthly,” Morris explained.
Morris told council she had learned a lot from Burcham since taking over the department.
She noted, too, controlling expenses has been aided by the fact department heads have had more of a say and control this year over their budgets.
“I have the capability now to sit down with them and work with them line item by line item.
“We can tell a big difference this year as opposed to last year,” Morris said.
“I would just like to say thank you for the job well done. Your staff, the department heads and Miss Burcham,” stated Vice Mayor Greg East. “I know I have a whole lot more confidence in what we’re seeing here. We’re certainly moving in the right direction and that’s attributable to you, Miss Burcham and the rest of the staff and the department heads, so thank you very much.”
Council Jamie Radcliffe echoed East’s comments and noted that council used to hear complaints about its finance office in the past.
“We don’t hear those anymore,” he said.
“I do have a good staff in the finance department. They all do a wonderful job,” Morris said, noting she had not been working directly with the staff all the time during this year due to working with Burcham so much.
“But they kept it running and I do not have to worry. As I told Miss Burcham, when I’m upstairs with her they can run the office and they do a fabulous job,” she added.
Burcham noted the finance office staff has ramped up efforts to collect delinquent personal property taxes and will be starting a similar effort on past due real estate taxes.
“So, this is actual proof that government can have accountability in a budget,” noted Councilman Brooks Dawson. “That is definitely possible. We’ve seen the other side of it. It’s truly fantastic listening to that.”