Newton plans for the future

2010 was a tough year for Catawba County's municipalities, and the city of Newton was no exception.

"This was a very difficult year," said Newton Mayor Robert Mullinax, adding the budget process for the city was "as tough a budget process as I've ever seen."

Despite budgeting difficulties, the city came through 2010 without a tax increase and continuing to provide high-quality services for its residents.

"There's a lot that we accomplished," said Newton City Manager Todd Clark. "And that's in addition to running the city."

Newton received several awards in 2010 for city services and programs, including recognition for the city's electrical department, green energy designs, energy efficiency, communication, public safety and financial reporting, to name a few.

Clark said 2010 was a big year for grant applications. The city turned to grant opportunities to fund various improvement projects and equipment needs.

Last year, Newton was awarded a grant from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund to offset costs required to replace the city's Burris Road pump station.

Clark said one of council's goals for 2011 is working to replace the pump station and complete that project.

Newton also received grants to increase the city's energy efficiency.

Green energy and efficiency is important to the city, Clark said. It not only helps the environment, but it also saves the city money, as well.

In the coming year, however, Mullinax said leaders will be more careful about certain grants and the matching funds required from the city.

"If we're going to continue to seek matching grants, then we need to have a budget item for the matching funds," he said. "... You have four or five matching grants, and before you know it, you've spent $100,000 of unbudgeted money."

Last year brought new business opportunities to Newton. Those ribbon-cuttings, Mullinax said are a good sign for the city, county and state's economy.

"That shows that there is a pulse out there," he said. "There is a heart beat economically."

2010 wasn't without its difficult decisions and unexpected hardships in Newton, but Clark said the way the city handled those situations is a testament to its strong leadership and resilient citizens.

Newton officials decided in May not to open the city's swimming pool for the 2010 season. Clark said the difficult decision saved the city about $45,000.

A decision hasn't been made, however, about whether the pool will remain closed for summer 2011.

"We didn't open our pools (this year), but we're not talking about plowing them," Clark said.

That decision will come when the city starts the budget process this spring.

Although the city pool wasn't open in 2010, city residents enjoyed the use of a new park with the dedication of Jacob Fork Park in July. Two new softball fields opened at the dedication.

In August, Newton battled an extensive water line break on U.S. 70, which cost the city millions of gallons of water and thousands of dollars to repair.

The break also forced Newton-Conover City Schools to start its first day of the school year on a two-hour delay.

"I think we did as a good a job as we could under the circumstances," Clark said. "Everyone worked together. ... I got a lot of compliments from people saying, 'Thank you for keeping us informed.'"

Going into 2011, keeping residents informed of all the city's happenings is a top priority.

"We're as transparent as the public needs us to be," Clark said.

That transparency includes Newton's Facebook page, Twitter feed and Flickr photo site.

"I do see us making big strides in terms of our media efforts," said Gary Herman, the city's public information officer. "We've put a real emphasis on making information available in a fun and easy manner."

In a little more than one year, Newton accumulated almost 1,000 "likes" on Facebook and 100 followers on Twitter.

Herman said the city plans to add more video to its website, including public safety information.

Social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, don't cost money to use. So, those sites are a cost-efficient and effective way to get important information out to city residents.

Newton leaders remain optimistic about the city's ability to provide for its residents, despite a tight budget in 2011.

North Carolina faces a budget shortfall of more than $3 billion, which could potentially affect state funding granted to area municipalities, including Newton.

"It's going to be a hard year," Clark said. "It's just going to be very difficult. ... Going into the budget, we're going to cautious and conservative, because the state is a wild card right now."

Municipalities are required to have a budget for fiscal year 2011-12 passed and in place by July 1. The state, however, often doesn't adopt its budget until months later, leaving local budget-makers to anticipate potential cuts and shortfalls in the state's budget.

"We've got to continue to tighten our belt and watch every dollar of our citizens' money," Mullinax said.

Meanwhile, the city will try to make the most of its resources and assets.

"We're going to be as fiscally conservative as possible, while continuing to provide a high level of service for citizens," Clark said.