Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer
Thoughts on the economic health of the Town of Franklin were on the minds of council members at the Tuesday, May 12, 5:30 p.m. work session regarding the proposed budget for fiscal year 2020-2021.
Town Manager Summer Woodard pointed out that COVID-19 has caused unique issues and uncertainty. Before getting into a “deep dive” of the budget, she provided to the council an overview of the budget, which is available for the public’s view on the Town of Franklin website.
In the introduction, the proposed budget states the following: “The North Carolina League of Municipalities is anticipating that municipalities and counties could see at least a 25 percent reduction in sales tax revenues for fiscal year 2020-2021. Water and sewer revenues will also be affected due to COVID-19 and North Carolina Executive Order 124.”
In response, Vice Mayor Barbara McRae expressed concern for “someone who is unable to pay a water bill for example … will they ever be able to pay it off?”
Woodard commented, “There is a concern there … that we may have to look at some loss at the end of the fiscal year.”
McRae also asked council members if they had any input regarding how small businesses were faring, even though they had only been open for a few days. Mayor Bob Scott conveyed, “What I’m hearing from business owners is that it was a whole lot easier to shut down than it is to reopen.”
Scott added that a “burr under his saddle right now” is the fact that such companies as Lowes and Wal-Mart “have made a tremendous amount of money [during the COVID-19 crisis] while mom and pop businesses were closed, but they pay the same on [business] licenses as the guy with a one chair barber shop.” There was no additional discussion about how that could be remedied.
“We tried to maintain the budget in a cost effective manner for the citizens of the town,” said Woodard. “So when we started the budget process, we tried to trim it as much as possible.” For example, maintaining the current tax rate is recommended with the fiscal year 2020-2021 proposed Town of Franklin budget.
One COVID-19 inspired budget item is a new safety window for Town Hall. “We’ve noticed during the COVID crisis, we’ve had to keep that window closed,” said Woodard, “To do this right, a new window … a one-time purchase, is estimated at $6,200.”
A long anticipated budget item involves improvement to the town square gazebo. Woodard explained that it would be rebuilt, but not altered, with a new cedar shake roof at an estimated total cost of $8,000. “We hope to have it nice and operational by 2021,” she said.
Memorial Park on Main Street is also tapped for some improvements. For the estimated cost of $16,200, the plan is to replace the floor, repaint the exterior, add mulch, and address drainage issues. “We also want to look into putting games there for recreation purposes,” said Woodard.
Funds have also been budgeted for sidewalk repair and replacement.
A total of $70,000 has been allotted in this budget for the purchase of two new patrol vehicles to replace two cars that have more than 100,000 miles each on their odometers. Woodard pointed out that some monies will be gained from selling the old police cars.
Woodard said the town “desperately needs” a new street sweeper. The current street sweeper is a 2008 Elgin Crosswind Sweeper with 21,000 miles and 4,100 hours. The approximate life for a sweeper truck is five to eight years. The proposed budget allots $265,000 to purchase a new sweeper truck. Woodard added, “It’s a big chunk to take in, but it’s on its last leg. If we are able to secure a new one, we may can sell the existing street sweeper for around $20,000 to offset cost of new one.”
The budget does plan for a July 4 celebration, Pumpkinfest, and two nights of Winter Wonderland. “If we’re open, the [August 21, 2017] eclipse celebration will be considered tiny in comparison,” quipped Mayor Scott, referring to Fourth of July festivities.
Overall, the total proposed budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 is $9,211,635.00, which represents a decrease in expenditures of $282,097 from fiscal year 2019-2020.
“Given all the uncertainties, it makes me feel hopeful,” said McRae, after hearing Woodard’s budget summary. Scott commended Woodard on a “tremendous effort.”
For the near future, discussion shifted to alternative ways to assist Franklin businesses. Mayor Scott pointed out that he understood $831,000 may be coming to Macon County because of the March 19, 2020 CARES Act, which is a government bill set up “to provide emergency assistance and health care response for individuals, families, and businesses affected by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.”
“If we get that money, how can we help people who are suffering?” asked McRae. “Can the council could come up with a plan for how we could get that money and get it to people who are hurting? Any restrictions on how the money can be spent?”
“It’s almost like the Depression must have been. Some people are extremely hurting right now. Let’s see if we can get some of those monies,” said Mayor Scott. “The hospital has been off 30 or 40 percent. Everybody’s in this boat together; we may not be in it equal, but we’re all in it.”
The Town of Franklin Council agreed to look into possible CARES Act funds opportunities.
“We’ve been really lucky in that we’ve only had three [COVID-19] cases,” said McRae. “But is there anything we haven’t done that we should be doing?”
Woodard said that on June 1, when the Town of Franklin Council meets again, “We can look at what we’ve spent as a whole on COVID-19 crisis. It’s not over yet.”
Finally, some Town of Franklin funds are already available to move forward to have a Main Street banner made to remind and encourage people to support local businesses and restaurants. The Council agreed that that banner would be made and installed.