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The Emporia City Council met on Tuesday, on the agenda were the General Fund and Utility Budgets for Fiscal Year 2016 (July 1, 2015-June 30, 2016).  While there were really no major surprises at this point in the budget process, the actual act of voting to approve the budget was interesting.

The General Fund budget for the upcoming Fiscal Year includes a 1% increase in the Lodging Tax, a 1% increase in the Meals Tax and a 3 cent per $100 increase in the Real Property Tax rate.   These tax increases are to pay for, among other things, an increase in funding to the School Board.  Within the Utility Budget is a 5% increase for both Water and Sewer, which is down from the proposal of 15% and 12.5% respectively.  The rate increase will add $1.96 to the average water bill, according to City Manager Brian Thrower in his summary to City Council.

For the last 5 years, while taxes have remained relatively static, water rates have increased dramatically to pay for a new Water Treatment Plant using a USDA loan. 

Fiscal Year

Water Increase

Sewer Increase

2012 (July 1,2011-June 30, 2012)

7.5%

2%

2013 (July 1,2012-June 30, 2013)

7.5%

2%

2014 (July 1,2013-June 30, 2014)

19.6%

 

2015 (July 1,2014-June 30, 2015)

7%

 

2016 (July 1,2015-June 30, 2016)

5%

5%

Council Member James Ewing (District 3) moved to adopt the General Fund and Utility Budgets as presented.    After the motion, Council Member Harris sought and received unanimous consent to allow business owners who could not make it to the Public Hearing to address the Council.  A local hotel owner, who did not give his name or address,  shared his opinion that a 1% increase in the Lodging Tax would make his business in the City suffer, as both Roanoke Rapids (13.75%) and Stony Creek (7.3%) had lower Lodging Tax rates.   He provided the Council with a chart showing lodging rates in the region.

During the discussion Council Member F. Woodrow Harris (District 4) asked that the motion be amended to separate the General Fund and Utility Budgets, so that he could vote for one and against the other.  The only discussion was from Council Member Harris, who first thanked City Staff for their significant effort to reduce the Water and Sewer Rate increases.

Council Member Harris went on to say that he thought we were “killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” and the taxes were already becoming onerous.  Council Member Harris further pointed out that “there are choices that people have within this community, to stay here or go somewhere else and pay less.  We are boxing ourselves in.”

To clarify the Lodging Tax, if a room in the City of Emporia is rented for $100, the Lodging Tax on that transaction, at current rates, is $15.30, for a total of $115.30 per night.  Starting July First, that nightly total would be $116.30.  The average room rate at the Sleep Inn, from an internet search, is $99 per night.

Council Member Harris continued, “I realize that Council’s desire was to provide more money to the school system.  If I thought that would make one bit of difference, I would not be concerned about this action as I am, but the problem in our school system is not going to be solved by throwing more money at it, plain and simple.  Until the attitudes of parents change and the value of education is better appreciated by the citizens that have kids in the public schools, we are fighting a losing battle that no amount of money is going to remedy, plain and simple.  And finally, Madame Mayor, I’d like to vote for the Utility Budget but against the General Fund Budget, so I would move to divide the question and consider those motions separately.

The motion was amended and the vote on passage of the General fund Budget failed, with only Council Member Ewing voting in favor.

Mayor Person stated “I guess we need to go back and look at this again.”

Council Member Harris made a motion to adopt the Utility Fund Budget, with the 5% Water and Sewer rate increase, and that budget passed unanimously. 

Council Member Harris: “Madam Mayor, before we go on can I make a comment to maybe clarify some of what is in the General Fund Budget?  While I appreciate the others who voted with me against that, there is a problem in voting down this General Fund Budget after this council has, on a 4-3 vote, voted to fund the additional money to the school system that led to the necessity for those tax increases, and while I don’t like arguing both sides of an issue, I think it is difficult, at this point, for anyone who voted in favor of the increase in school funding that was driving this budget to this level, to vote against it [the General Fund Budget].  The only alternative we have is to go back on the word that this Council gave, on a 4-3 vote, and reduce that school funding, and I don’t even know if that is legal.  If we have a special meeting and ask staff to go through this, they’ve pulled all of the rabbits out of all the hats to get the Utility Budget down to the point they did; I don’t see how it’s humanly possible, for even Brian, Shiela and Ed, even if we bring Lisa in (laughter)…to find a way to balance this.  While I appreciate the concern that those of you have for what’s going to come next, the only choice to balance this budget without the tax increase, is to go back on the word that Council has given to the school system about what the school funding would be.  On the basis of that, I think there needs to be some direction provided to Administration of what you prefer to have presented to you, because I don’t think there’s another option, frankly.”

Mayor Person asked for clarification about whether both the increase in the Lodging Tax and the Meals Tax were needed.  Sheila Futrell, the City Finance Director replied, “that was the initial discussion, but after we had to adjust the Utility Fund Budget that also affected the General Fund Budget, so new we need all of it.

Mayor Person pointed out that we needed to pass the budget and that the School Board has, “based on what we agreed to do here, completed their budget and have issued contracts based on that completed budget.”

Council Member Harris: “You know I’ve make it plain I don’t agree with that action, I’ll vote against the budget still, but I didn’t vote for the increases to the school system, so I think the problem is, even though I don’t agree with that action, I don’t like to see Council go back on its word, and I think that is what would have to happen to make this fit together.

Council Member Ewing: “And I agree.  I didn’t vote for the increase either, but I know that we have to have a budget; and it was decided by Council, as you have said, that these increases would occur to fund the school system.  That was the direction that Council gave the school system.  I just do not see how we can not approve the budget.  Even though I don’t like it, we’ve got to do it.

After quiet discussion amongst council members, Council Member Doris White (District 5) moved to reconsider the question of the General Fund Budget.  After that motion passed, Council Member Ewing restated his motion to adopt the General Fund Budget as presented and it passed, with only Council Members Harris and Deborah Lynch (District 7)voting against it.  Council Members Harris and Lynch also voted against reconsideration of the question.

The Greensville County Public Schools Budget is $30,180,899.  Of that, $17,600,133 comes from the state, $4,044,767 from the federal government, $1,140,856 from other sources, $4,162,127 from Greensville County and $4,734,732.  These numbers come from the School Division section of the Greensville County Budget, where the City of Emporia amount was expected to be $3,582,996.  The City’s appropriation to the School Board is only 15.69% of their estimated budget, while the Greensville County is funding at a rate of 13.79%.  State funding accounts for 58.32% of the budget.

Aside from funding for Greensville County Public Schools, the budget included $1.4 million dollars to beautify South Main Street, adding new street lamps, plantings and a new traffic signal at the intersection of South Main Street, Brunswick and Hicksford Avenues.  This project is funded by a grant from VDOT and matching funds from the city.  The City’s portion of this is approximately $700,000. The project will begin before the end of summer.  There is also still $100,000 in the budget to demolish the Auditorium on Main Street.  As part of the City’s Capital Improvement Plan, this building may be saved and become part of a City Hall/Civic Center complex.  The information found in the budget materials on the City website describe the Auditorium as being in good condition and structurally sound.  It should be noted that the opposition to these expenditures, if any, was not as vocal, nor as vehement as the additional funding requested by Greensville County Public Schools.  Meeting Minutes, however, are not available on the City’s website for the month of May, 2015.  The only Budget Work Session minutes available on website were for the session on May 5, 2015.

With the General Fund and Utility Fund Budgets passed, City Council moved on with the Agenda.

City Manager Brian Thrower presented City Council with a Capital Improvement Plan.  The plan was presented as a guide to help the City project capital needs for Fiscal Years 2015-2020.  The current Capital Improvement Plan includes the study of improvements to or replacement of the Municipal Building and Police Department, purchase of vehicles for the Police Department, Fire Department and Public Works and the replacement of water meters in the City.

After the motion was made and seconded, Council Member Harris led the discussion.  “Philosophically, I understand the point of planning, but there is a lot of stuff in that Capital Improvement Plan, especially at the very end of it, that is going to be very uncomfortable for any Council at that point in time to adopt and vote on and fund.  I guess what I am looking to emphasize is that this is a plan, not an indication that Council is going to fund everything that’s in it; the public, the Department Heads, the City Employees should not get the idea that money is just going to drop from Richmond, ‘cause we all know that ain’t gonna happen, and that we’ll be able to afford everything that is included in this.  It’s just a working document, correct.”   Mayor person assured him that it was a planning guide only.  Approval of the Capital Improvement Plan passed unanimously.

Next on the Agenda was a Zoning Code Amendment Request for Purdy Road.  FoSho is looking to add a food processing and wholesale distribution facility for their BBQ, which would be allowed by Conditional Use Permit if this amendment was adopted.  The product they currently sell comes from North Carolina, but their supplier is no longer able to sell across state lines. Hermie Sadler explained the reason for the proposed facility during a public hearing just before Tuesday’s City Council Meeting.  The proposed facility would also include improvements to buildings currently on the site.  The Zoning Code Amendment was passed, as recommended by staff and the Planning Commission, and Mr. Sadler was advised that he now needed to complete the process for a Conditional Use Permit before the Planning Commission.

A Conditional Use permit was sought my Alvin Shell for a new manufactured home on Harris Street.  This item was also the topic of a Public Hearing.  Staff and the Planning Commission recommended allowing the permit.  The Motion allowing the permit passed.

The City of Emporia Electoral Board will need to relocate the polling place for District 5.  The Electoral Board has decided to combine it with the polling place for District 7 at the fire station, as they do with Districts 4 and 6 at the High School Band Room.  To do this there needs to be a Public Hearing.  City Council approved the Public Hearing which will precede their July meeting.

City Council also approved hosting the Fireworks Display for Independence Day on behalf of the Emporia-Greensville Chamber of Commerce, passed an Appropriations Ordinance to distribute Four for Life funds to the Greensville County Rescue Squad and passed another Appropriations Ordinance for Sales Tax Revenue received by the City from the State to use for education.  Council approved the ordinance to transfer those funds, in the amount of $43,489.12.  The money was above what the City had budgeted for Sales Tax Revenue.

City Council also passed an Appropriation Ordinance to pay for FY 2012 shared service with Greensville County.  The original amount was $159,102 but was reduced to 70,019. Council Member Harris thought “it would be remiss of City Council not to take another opportunity commend the Finance Director for her outstanding work in this area.  This is not the first year that the Citizens of Emporia have enjoyed a huge and significant savings as the result of her work.  On behalf of all of us, thank you very much for your excellent attention to that very, very important matter, that you get such wonderful results is a tremendous credit to you.  Thank You.”

Council Member Harris raised a Point of Order about the vote on the budget.  His question was whether City Council needed to also adopt an ordinance adopting the tax increases and rate increases for Water and Sewer.  Mr. Thrower informed Council that he had consolidated all of those ordinances into his recommendation to Council as council had usually voted on all of those in one motion.  Council Member Harris continued, "for the record, then, can the Clerk specify my opposition to the increases on the Lodging Tax, Meals Tax, the Real Estate Tax and my approval of the two ordinances on the charges for the Water rate.  That was the whole point of wanting it separate, so that I could vote against the things I didn't like and for the things I did; and if the Clerk will accept that clarification with anyone else that wants to be noted the same way to be consistent with our votes on the other two ordinances, that would be fine." Council Member Lynch interrupted, stating, "me as well."

The meeting was opened to Public Comment.  Cornell Hines sopke for Habitat for Humanity, thanking them for the "many, many blessings" that Council had bestowed on them since the inception of the Emporia-Greensville Chapter.  He also asked Council to consider continuing to waive the fees related to their building permit.

Polly Duffy, Director of the Meherrin Regional Library System thanked the Council for their ongoing support of the library system and support for the upcoming budget year.  She also praised the fact that the Richardson Memorial Library is well maintained.  Ms. reviewed the services offered at the Richardson Memorial Library before asking Council to reconsider some of the funding the library receives, specifically a reduction in the federal e-rate pertaining to the voice telephones.  The amount she wanted reconsidered was $414 for the upcoming year.

Thelma A. Riley President of the Community Youth Center asked Council to consider giving the CYC some of the $10,000 that was designated for demolition at the CYC.  She wished to have the funds to assist with the pool project this summer. She stated that a tour of the building indicated that it could be rehabilitated.  Mayor Person asked Assistant Manager Ed Daley for clarification, and he indicated that the immediate focus should be on the pool and bathhouse area.  Sections of the long building should be demolished if funding for rehabilitation could not be found.  He felt that the long building would take more money to renovate than the community would be willing to raise.

John Kinsey approached the podium and thanked Council for their service, saying that it was "quite interesting tonight.  We can always count on Woody to make things interesting;"  he also invited City Council to Faith Baptist Church's Annual God and Country Service Day, on June 28 at 10:30.

The regular session ended and City Council moved into a Closed Session to discuss legal matters regarding Fire Department funding and the acquisition of real property for a public purpose and disposition of publicly held real property where discussion in open session would adversely effect Council's negotiation strategy.

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