Fiscal demands grip strategic plan

Jan. 23, 2013 @ 07:23 PM

Henderson’s strategic plan and ideas for grant awards, economic development, capital improvement and enhanced neighborhoods were discussed Wednesday at the city council’s annual retreat.

The daylong series of topical sessions produced a collection of responses that will be put into a strategy report for presentation at a February council meeting.

“This was a sharing of information and perspectives, and the council liked the approach we took,” said Ray Griffin, the city manager, of utilizing breakout groups. “This helped us to better understand the conversation and sharing of ideas between people and made it more productive.”

Tracking with the results of a questionnaire to council members, discussion items centered on:

• Economic development and revenue questions, helping businesses and job creation.

• Capital improvements per each city department, including vehicle fleet replacement needs.

• A strategy for Flint Hill development and improvement.

• One-stop permitting, including cooperation between city and county departments.

• A balanced budget without spending city savings.

• Recycling costs, including if there are advantages to justify the cost.

• A city employee pay classification study.

On economic development questions, leaders found it difficult to hit on specifics that reached beyond the obvious: jobs are needed, and the solution is more jobs.

Councilman Mike Inscoe said that economic development priorities include better security and a quest for grants toward funding improved downtown sidewalk and facade appearances. Also, extending infrastructure services to points where industries may locate is important.

“We need to look very seriously into extending sewer services beyond the city limits, especially along the U.S. 1 corridor,” Inscoe said. “What to do with a lot of city owned property is another important question to look into, either selling or leasing, getting those properties utilized.”

Council members and city leaders agreed that one-stop permitting is a good step for helping new businesses locate to Vance County, perhaps in the city, but the process getting there is difficult involving county and city policy changes.

The permitting process would be redesigned, possibly along the lines of what another locality has done that could serve as a template to follow.

According to Henderson Fire Chief Danny Wilkerson, it would involve departments beyond the usual planning and zoning offices, including code compliance and fire department officials.

“We would be working with the county to create some kind of customized check list for processing permits,” Wilkerson said.

Staff and council members also agreed that it is vital for fiscal discipline to prevail in holding the line against digging into city savings.

A $4.77 million total savings balance for the city is further broken down by funds covered by state statute that can’t be spent, asset forfeiture and federal roadway savings that are off limits and $238,000 spent to cover last year’s city budget.
The undesignated city savings balance stands at $2 million, about $10,000 less than in 2009 but far better than a near zero sum in 2005. Inscoe said that the climb is not good enough.

“If we continue to withdraw funds from out of our savings, then we will eventually run out of money,” he said. “Then we would be mandated to make some drastic cuts.”

Ideas for sheltering city savings included real estate tax hikes, fee increases and perhaps new fees.

Wilkerson said that an example with his department would be charging for fire safety inspections.

Griffin said that an employee pay scale study would be relatively cheap, but even though it is a stated priority in every budget year recently, it has been booted off over and over again as an easy line item to cut and delay another year.

He said the study is needed as a kind of inventory of where the city is at regarding the work, job descriptions, skills and value of city employees, staving off the threat that city departments might be losing quality employees without knowing why or being able to stop it.

“We know we have a problem, but we don’t know details,” Griffin said.

According to Griffin, a success at the Henderson Police Department included their own study, then pay upgrades that have virtually eliminated turnover.

“The reason we would like to see a pay classification study completed is we need to know our employees’ fair market value,” Henderson Police Chief Keith Sidwell said. “Once it is done, you have to act on it because employees will see that they are underpaid.”

Other priorities mentioned by council members that could not be included in discussions Wednesday included how to inform sewer service customers about coming rate hikes; an ex-offender program; privatization; a community development manager; the recreational, educational, entertain and family center project on Zene Street; street improvements; quality of life issues; and substandard housing.

Contact the writer at mfisher@hendersondispatch.com.