Newton approves $40M budget

Newton City Council approved a $40 million budget that will hold steady citizens' taxes, as well as water and sewer rates, while delivering a pay raise for all city employees and investing in the city's capital needs during the year ahead. 
Those needs will be addressed in $8 million in spending included in a capital improvements plan (CIP) the first year of which is funded in the 2011-12 budget.
“I think it has been a good day for the citizens of Newton when this council passed capital improvement plan. This city had to have a plan to move forward, and this council stood up and did that,” said Newton Mayor Robert Mullinax. “It was a good day.” 
City Council approved the budget 4-2, with Council members Wayne Dellinger and Robert Abernethy Jr. casting dissenting votes.
“I don’t have a problem with 90 or 95 percent of the budget,” Dellinger said.”I have a problem with the CIP part that is included in the budget.”
Dellinger argued that the CIP could result in higher property taxes in years to come, including property tax increases during the next several years.
City Manager Todd Clark said property tax increases are not a part of the 2011-12 budget.
In addition to opposing the CIP, Abernethy also opposed the level of electric rate increases and hikes to inspections fees.
“I was elected because I am a fiscal conservative, and I thought we had an opportunity to save the taxpayers some money and avoid a property tax increase,” he said. “My viewpoint has been to reduce spending, and if we are looking at a proposed property tax increase, we may be spending too much money.”
The measure raises power rates 5.5 percent for city residents, while also increasing fees and charges for some services offered by the city, particularly the cost of periodic fire inspections and permits completed and required by Newton Fire Department. 
With the electric rate increase, an average Newton power customer using 1035 kWh per month, the increase means electric bills will climb $6.93 per month to $116.90. Over a year, the power increase amounts to $83.16, for the average customer.
The $40 million budget for fiscal year 2011-12 will also provide a 1 percent cost-of-living increase for all 176 city employees, although it will also make dental insurance optional and raise other health insurance rates on employees' dependents.  
When dental insurance becomes optional, employees will be required to pay the cost of that benefit — about $7.02 per week if they want to keep it, according to Clark. Newton will also change insurance providers — going to Blue Cross & Blue Shield of N.C. — and the city will see about a 20 percent increase in the cost of covering employees. That 20 percent increase is also part of the city's previous health insurance provider, Clark said, and with the new insurance provider there will be no change in co-pay or benefits. Employees will see a similar increase for their out-of-pocket costs for any covered dependents.
The total budget of about $40 million represents roughly a 21 percent increase over the amended budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30; however, it also includes a capital improvement plan, which plans $8 million in spending for water and sewer line rehabilitation, a police records system and other vehicles and equipment.
“If any citizen wants to ask me personally about any item in this budget, they can pick up the phone and call me or come by my office and talk to me in person,” Mullinax said. “I am available. It is not something secret. We have beat it around. If you want to talk about it, you can gossip, or you can talk about it.”
Other city changes in the budget:
• The approved budget also increases fines for most police department violations, such as illegal parking, from $5 to $10. The penalty for parking in a handicapped spot will increase from $50 to $100. The fine for parking in a leased space will increase from $5 to $20.
• The cost for the Soldiers Reunion increase from $12 to $15 for same-day registrants. The fee for the annual bike ride increase $5.
• The cost of leaf bags sold by the city will increase from $2 to $3.25.