Wilmington budget calls for spending cuts and tax increases

    Wilmington residents will face higher property taxes and some police officer will be out of work under Mayor James Baker’s budget proposal.

    Wilmington Mayor James Baker (D) presented his Fiscal Year 2011 budget to members of city council Thursday night.  The $147.7 million budget is just 1.4% higher than last year’s budget.

    Baker outlined the financial difficulties facing the city, including an $8 million deficit for the current fiscal year, and says the city’s problems are similar to issues currently affecting hundreds of other municipalities: rising poverty and high unemployment.  “What we do is accept this great and unprecedented fiscal challenge and fight with every ounce of our will to keep our city and its people strong.”

    To balance the budget, Baker presented a series of cost cutting measures and increases in revenue.

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    Cutting Costs

    Among the cuts, 15 full time employees, including six police patrol positions.  Baker says the six officers had originally been funded by the Wilmington Housing Authority and the Weed and Seed program.  Several years ago, their pay was shifted to the city’s operating budget.  Baker says the city can no longer afford to keep them.  That change will reduce the city’s authorized strength to 337.

    As part of another cost cutting measure in the Mayor’s budget, city employees will have to pay a bigger share of their health care costs.  Baker says, “We must do more to control the effect of rising health care costs on our city budget and must ask our employees to contribute more to the cost of these services.”

    Baker is also proposing a $389,000 cut in salaries for temporary workers.  That means only 60 jobs instead of 250 in the Summer Youth Employment Program.  Three swimming pools will be closed, and Saturday hours will be eliminated at the William “Hicks” Anderson Community Center.

    The city’s financial support for some special events will be eliminated as well.  The city’s First Night celebration on New Year’s Eve will be canceled, and some new fees will be implemented for other events to defray the city’s costs for security and clean up.  The city will also trim it’s spending on community grants, scholarships and donations by $218,000.

    Baker also wants to convert the city’s camera watch program from live monitoring to a video taped surveillance system.  He says that change would not affect monitoring of downtown, Bethel Villa or West Center City cameras.  The monitoring program had been funded through $307,000 in federal grant money, but that money is due to run out at the end of June.

    Increasing Revenue

    All of those cuts will not be enough to bridge the city’s budget gap, so Baker is proposing a number of new ways to increase the money coming into the city’s coffers.  City residents will see a 15% increase in real estate taxes and a 30% increase in water and sewer rates.

    Baker says the water and sewer increase will give the water/sewer fund a positive annual budget and will reduce the need for that fund to be propped up by the general fund.  “If we do not address this issue, the debt to the general fund will negatively impact the city’s already limited reserves, its bond rating and its ability to borrow for future capital needs.”

    The city will continue to expand its aggressive collection efforts, which is expected to add $3 million to the general fund.  That effort includes the possibility of privatizing the city’s parking enforcement, which could add $2 million.

    Baker’s budget also implements a $25 fee for special trash pick-ups which are currently done for free.  He also wants to add additional red light enforcement cameras to city intersections.  The city’s red light camera contractor will also upgrade the cameras to allow them to be used for speed enforcement.  The General Assembly still has not decided whether to allow the use of digital speed enforcement in the state.

    Baker says despite the tough decisions made in this year’s budget, the situation would have been much worse if similar difficult cuts had not been made in previous years.  “We will continue to make decisions, popular and unpopular, to make Wilmington a stronger and more prosperous city.”

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