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City budget approved amid controversy

SARAH LOWERY
Staff Writer

Residents of Lincolnton can expect a new monthly charge of $10 for their garbage collection.
The move was made in a split decision Monday night by the City Council, which approved the fiscal year 2013-2014 budget with a vote of 2-1. Council member Devin Rhyne, who has adamantly expressed his opposition to the sanitation fee included in the plan, cast the lone dissenting vote.
Council member Larry Mac Hovis has been absent from recent meetings due to health problems.
Rhyne has said he believed the charge was a bad idea and expected it to be a hard sell to citizens. City Manager Jeff Emory and council members Carroll Heavner and Dr. John “Les” Cloninger have said they see it as necessary to continue offering services to Lincolnton residents without putting the burden on the backs of city employees.
Emory further stated that similar solid-waste fees are imposed in 75 percent of cities and towns across the state. In explaining his vote in favor of the measure, Heavner said he saw it as a justified charge since it costs the city nearly $1 million a year for trash pickup.
Rhyne meanwhile noted that if he felt the budget was as tight as it could be, he would see the fee differently. However, he felt like other cuts could be made to generate the same amount of revenue.
“You don’t have to turn very far in the (budget) book to get to those numbers,” he said to applause.
“We don’t all agree, but that’s what makes America great,” Mayor John Gilleland said prior to the public hearing, which drew a large crowd, all speaking against the charge.
The hearing preceded final action on the budget.
Charles Eurey was the first to speak, reiterating that the fee was a “tax by any other name” and that he worried once it was in place, it could then be increased each year. He said that with it being a difficult time for the city and constituents, sometimes “you have to bite the bullet” and tighten up expenses.
Ronnie Leonhardt, meanwhile, questioned whether the added charge would discourage people from moving within city limits and, therefore, inhibit housing growth.
Others stressed that they were in the same boat as the city in terms of reduced or fixed incomes and wondered whether other expenditures could not be cut instead. Jennifer Byrd cited surrounding municipalities who have found ways around such a charge and who, despite larger populations, have managed to reduce their budgets.
Some speaking during the hearing also offered their advice for ways to cut back in place of the sanitation fee.
Jonathan Hovis suggested the city axe its planned Christmas bonus for employees to help close the gap, while Robert Tomlinson said the Business and Community Development Department should be done away with.
Dr. Bill Hitt uttered perhaps the strongest statement against the new fee Monday night, warning that he would “do everything in my power” to make sure anyone who voted in favor of it will not be elected again.
In other City Council action:
Council members unanimously approved a conditional-use permit request from American Towers, LLC to construct a new wireless telecommunications tower on the west side of Startown Road, roughly 400 feet north of the intersection with Clear Creek Circle.
Council members unanimously approved a contract for the purchase of fuel for city-owned vehicles.
Council members received an update on the implementation of the recently upgraded utility-billing software, which will allow for online payments by customers. The program will be offered effective July 1, costing the city $2,500 for implementation and training. Customers will also be charged convenience fees of between $3.50 and $5.50, based on the amount of the bill and the number of customers using the program.
Council members received an update on Phase III of the Marcia H. Cloninger Rail-Trail Project from Planning Director Laura Simmons, who noted that “punch-list” items have been addressed and the North Carolina Department of Transportation has approved the project. Trash and debris will now be removed as necessary. Council members also unanimously signed off on final contract payments, totaling $8,377.42.
Rhyne requested that a report on expenditures and revenues in “hard dollars” be supplied at the next meeting, July 11, from this weekend’s Hog Happenin’ event.

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