That may as well have been the theme of Thursday night’s budget workshop. That is what the discussion eventually boiled down to, but a property tax hike was the 800-pound gorilla in the room. An inaudible gorilla, but a gorilla nonetheless — one that understands only the language of mathematics.
Public Works Department Director Phil Pindzola made a strong pitch to city commissioners for continued in-house beautification and streetscape projects Thursday, spotlighting the department’s recent successes and a glaring $3.8 million not included in the department’s 2015 fiscal budget.
“In order to provide a balanced budget, all projects associated with streetscapes, beautification and general cleanliness have been reduced or eliminated,” he said near the end of a more than two-hour review, which revealed that routine maintenance, rising materials costs and aging equipment and infrastructure are far outpacing the amount of money on hand to keep up with the city’s needs.
“Where’s the return?” Vice Mayor Clayton Stout asked Pindzola following his rundown about why the city needs to stay focused on downtown improvements.
“Doesn’t that influence the image you have of your community?” Pindzola replied. “I think you have seen an impression change downtown. How much risk are you willing to take for a return? The reward is it has generated energy and discussion. If you let it rot ... why would you want to invest in a community like that? That’s the reward. I would bet that the things that have happened downtown have created more discussion than I’ve seen in 35 years. And we’ve done most of it on our own.”
Pindzola proceeded to compliment his staff and the department’s 83 full-time employees, and commissioners, including Stout, concurred they had done a great job.
“If we don’t take care of our downtown, people are not going to want to invest in us,” said Commissioner Jenny Brock.
Assistant City Manager Bob Wilson said downtown was “still the heart of the city,” and Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin agreed but also expressed caution at what is shaping up to be a very tough year for most departments.
The department has within the current year:
• Completed the Boone Street detention basin and Broadway wetlands basin.
• Demolished the Suntrust, WW Cab and old Johnson City Furniture company.
• Completed the Tupelo Honey trail, restored Roan Street from State of Franklin Road to Main Street and completed the first Public Art Corridor Project.
This is just a small sampling of all projects completed.
Here’s a preview of what is slated not to happen in FY 2015: The traffic-calming program will be no more. There will be no emphasis on landscape enhancements. New sidewalk and trail funding would be eliminated, as would the department’s street reconstruction program.
The proposed $10.7 million budget, not including the enterprise-funded storm water and solid waste divisions — is down by more than $226,000 over the current years, or 2.1 percent.
The proposed budget also reduces the resurfacing program from $1.5 million to about $1.3 million.
Van Brocklin asked Pindzola what type of funding for resurfacing would be preferable.
“I think $3 million to $3.5 million a year over a five to 10-year period,” Pindzola answered.
Wilson also announced the city had no cash on hand to help fund the new farmers market.
“Well, if you have the money, we’ll build it,” Pindzola retorted.
There’s that word again: money.
Van Brocklin stated last month in no uncertain terms that the city would likely be forced to at least consider a property tax increase — something it has not imposed in 12 years.
“Will long-term goals get attended to without a property tax increase? I think that is problematic,” the mayor said at the time.
No one can say if commissioners will vote a tax hike up or down. But it is very clear after a handful of workshops that virtually every city department has proposed “problematic” budgets.
Not to throw gasoline on the fire, but it was also revealed Thursday that, due to a Tennessee Department of Transportation misstep, the city will not be able to begin right-of-way acquisition for the Knob Creek Overpass Project.
“The state was supposed to be getting us the bridge design plans,” Pindzola said. “They didn’t. So the city has to get someone.”
Another specific concern is the looming cost of maintaining the city’s storm water and other projects. Pindzola said maintenance for Founders Park alone will cost $10,000 annually, and he warned commissioners the city needed to plan for these needs as it creates greenspace.
Meanwhile, Angie Carrier, Development Services Department director, presented proposed budgets for Planning/GIS, Building Codes and the Metropolitan Transportation Organization. These all fall under the Development Services umbrella, as does Community Development, though the latter is funded strictly by grants.
The Planning/GIS proposed budget for its eight-person staff is relatively flat at just over $590,500. Three unfunded positions would be eliminated: a GIS technician and two planners. Carrier said she wanted to enter into an agreement in which the department and Washington County Economic Development Council would split about $40,000 to hire a retail and recruitment consultant.
“But that’s why the EDC is here — that’s why the Chamber is here,” said Commissioner Jeff Banyas.
“Most cities do their own retail recruitment,” Carrier responded.
The matter was put on the shelf for the time being.
Building Codes, with its 12 full-time employees and one part-time employee, also debuted a sinking budget of $820,659, down more than $14,000, or 1.8 percent.
Finally the MTPO’S proposed $344,313 budget is down more than $11,000 from the current year, or 3.2 percent. The organization, which is responsible for regional transportation planning and coordination, has two full-time employees and one part-time employee.
The budget process has been arduous, but it is far from over. Commissioners will meet again Wednesday to begin a final review of each department, and it is not known how many sessions this will require.
Commissioners will hear a first reading of the FY 2015 budget ordinance June 15. They will schedule dates for the second and third readings at that point.
Follow Gary B. Gray on Twitter at @ggrayjcpress. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/garybgrayjcp.