Wednesday, 24 March 2021 22:56

Hamlet Council questions requests in budget workshop

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Hamlet City Manager Matthew Christian reviews department requests during a budget workshop Wednesday afternoon. Hamlet City Manager Matthew Christian reviews department requests during a budget workshop Wednesday afternoon. William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

HAMLET — Some City Council members question if new vehicles — or at least the specific requested vehicles — are needed by municipal departments. during a budget workshop on Wednesday.


During Wednesday’s budget workshop, City Manager Matthew Christian outlined the vehicles in the departments’ capital outlay requests , which is for items costing $5,000 or more.

The Hamlet Police Department is asking for two Ford Explorers, at a cost of $81,600, to replace the two Chevrolet Tahoes currently in use, both of which have more than 150 miles on the odometer.

Councilman Jesse McQueen suggested waiting until the new chief starts, on April 12, to get his input.

“He may want to go a different route,” McQueen said. “He may want one Explorer and a car, or something like that.”

Christian said that incoming chief Dennis Brown, who is coming from Hertford, has been involved with budgetary discussions.

The city manager added that the SUVs are driven by the department’s lieutenants.

“Why do they need a truck?” asked Councilman Eddie Martin, former chief of the Rockingham Police Department. “Seems like to me they ought to have marked patrol cars; a sedan will do fine and well, unless they’re listing a truck for a specific reason … personally, I don’t see a lieutenant riding around in a truck.”

Christian clarified that it’s just a request, to which Martin replied the council could change the request to a car.

“There’s a lot of difference in the money, too,” Oscar Sellers added. 

Christian told the council that the city recently purchased a Dodge Charger for the police department for around $30,000.

Aside from the water department, Christian said department heads haven’t said they absolutely have to have the vehicles requested.

The Hamlet Fire Department is requesting a new Ford F-250 for Chief Calvin White.

Christian said the SUV currently driven by White would be used for inspections.

Mayor Bill Bayless said a similar request is made every year and the department already has several pickups.

Sellers asked why the chief needed such a large truck: “Couldn’t he use a smaller vehicle?”

The $48,000 cost includes the lights, striping and a slide-out tray in the bed “for the ease of reaching equipment and mounting extra equipment,” Christian said, adding that it would be used as a command vehicle and capable of towing the fire department’s trailers and transporting multiple personnel.

After being given details, Sellers said the request was “understandable.”

Although it wasn’t on the list, the fire department is also requesting air packs, which Bayless — who is chief of the East Rockingham Fire Department — said need to be bought every year.

The Public Works Department is asking for three vehicles this year: a street sweeper; a limb truck; and a Ford F-250 for the water department.

The street sweeper, estimated to cost $190,485, was cut from last year’s budget, according to Christian.

Bayless said the city has needed a new street sweeper for years — which former mayor and current Councilwoman Abbie Covington said fell apart, was patched and fell apart again.

The city went two years without a street sweeper, Bayless added.

McQueen asked about the possibility of contracting the service out.

Public Works Director Billy Stubbs, the only department head at the meeting, said the city did that when there were problems with the old sweeper and it would cost around $75,000 per year for only once or twice a week.

As for the limb truck, the request is just for the truck itself, a Ford F-350, costing $45,845.

The pickup requested by the water department is the same basic model as the one requested by the fire department, but nearly half the cost at $28,255.

Christian explained that part of the difference in the cost would be the lights, striping and the aforementioned pull-out tray.

Sellers again questioned the reasoning behind such a large truck.

Stubbs said a smaller model, like an F-150 wouldn’t be strong enough to pull some of the equipment and it would replace the current truck.

The crew at the water treatment plant is also requesting a new Ford F-150 at $26,900, which would replace the F-250 currently in service.

When revenues are better, Christian said he’d like to take a comprehensive look at the city’s fleet and how many vehicles are replaced annually.

Christian also proposed the purchase of new advanced water meters — with no price tag.

“Everything has a useful life and … we replace meters as needed,” Christian said. “But, comprehensively, we don't’ have a good collection of information to really understand all aspects of what’s going on with our system,” especially with leaks.

Christian said the newer system could provide a lot more data “to help us manage a better business.”

The downside, he added, “It’s a pretty expensive endeavor.”

However, he wanted to run it by the council before requesting proposals.

Covington said the new meters would be helpful because the city is producing a lot more water that it’s selling, adding that she’s heard “they pay for themselves.”

Bayless, who seemed in favor of the idea, requested a presentation be made to the Council on the new meters.

Also left off of the chart was a request from Hamlet Depot and Museums for a $5,000 custom-built cabinet for a local exhibit in the Visitors Center.

Christian said it would be made by the same builder of the museum’s other display cabinets so they would match.

Council members requested that department heads be at the next budget meeting to answer questions and justify the expenses.

“Tell them to bring their sales pitch,” McQueen said.

EMPLOYEES: 'THE GREATEST ASSET'

Christian said that the largest benefit the city provides employees, aside from direct compensation, is health insurance.

The city currently makes a 100% contribution to 95 employees at a cost of $630,853.

But, premiums are rising.

If the city was not to make any changes to the policy, a renewal would increase by 6% to $688,895.

However, a second option from Blue Cross Blue Shield would provide the same amount of coverage,except for a minimal change involving a specific list of prescription drugs where employees would have to pay 50% with a $100 cap. 

That plan would cost the city $652,342.

Christian said the second plan is the best option with much disruption.

According to a disruption report, that would only affect 40 claims, Christian added.

McQueen said a lot of municipalities are passing some of the increase onto employees and hopes Hamlet never has to do that.

“At some point, I don’t know that new hires are gonna be able to get that paid insurance after retirement,” McQueen said, adding that they shouldn’t do anything to affect current employees. “That may be a long-term thing that we look at that would help solidify keeping 100 percent free.to the employees.”

Christian also proposed a cost-of-living raise, which was something else the city had to forego in last year’s budget.

McQueen said the city needs to try to prevent losing employees to other places.

“Not all things cost money,” Christian said. “When you lose institutional knowledge or when you have high turnover … sometimes you can’t afford to lose people.”

The city manager added that he often thinks about retention and giving employees “a reason to stay.”

“We’re going to try to find a way to make something work,” he said.

Bayless referenced the shortfall caused to Hamlet and the other municipalities by last year’s decision by the Richmond County Board of Commissioners to change the method of sales tax distribution.

Earlier this month, Covington presented projections to the commissioners showing Norman becoming insolvent in two years and all other municipalities going under within seven years — an estimate Commissioner Justin Dawkins said he saw no evidence for.

Bayless said the thought of going under is always at the back of his mind.

“We’re not going anywhere, Bill,” Covington assured him.

Covington also said that she’d like to give the employees a 4% increase, but with the current situation it’s not fiscally responsible.

McQueen suggested waiting to make a decision until there’s a resolution with the county.

“It’s an emergency for us,” he said. “It’s something that they can kick down the road, but for us, it’s real and present.”

Covington said there is “light at the end of the tunnel.”

“Everything we talked about today is going to hinge on that,” McQueen said.

Talking about keeping employees happy spurred McQueen to suggest giving them an extra day off for Easter in a show of appreciation — a move that was voted on and unanimously approved by the council.

FEDERAL REVENUE

The city is slated to receive $1.85 million from the American Recovery Act, according to Christian. The first half of that payment, to be distributed through the state, is expected in May.

Council members wondered if some of those funds could be used to help pay for some of the city’s much-needed items, including the fire department’s air packs, the new water meters and more pay for employees.

“Maybe this extra cash will give us the bump that we need to look at this seriously,” Covington said regarding the meters. She also suggested using some of the money to make good on not giving raises this current year.

“If we give it in the form of a bonus, it makes up for what they lost” and doesn’t add to the budget, Covington said.

Christian said he is still waiting on guidance of the U.S. Treasury on what the federal funds can be used for.

“It would be an easy fix to a tough year, but that money’s got specific uses,” McQueen said. “And as a steward of the money that we spend and we use, we need to be in line with every situation. There don’t need to be any gray areas.”

To stay within the stringent regulations regarding the federal dollars, Christian said he intends to put the money into a special revenue fund, separate from the others, “so it’ll be very easy to track every dollar that comes in and goes out of that fund.”

The council meets for its regular meeting April 13 and the next budget workshop is slated for April 21.