WINSTON — The Winston City Council chambers were filled above capacity Monday night as a proposed public safety fee brought criticism from residents.
The fee would add $3 per month to the sewer bill of each developed property within the city. It would be used to replace three aging police vehicles, an action which city officials say is long overdue.
“We’ve gotta have good, safe vehicles out there for our officers,” said City Manager Mark Bauer at the meeting Monday. “They’re in enough danger as it is, they don’t need it from their vehicles.”
The city has already ordered the vehicles, which will arrive in May, according to Bauer.
“We’re moving forward with purchasing the three cars at this time whether we fund it from this funding mechanism or not,” Bauer said.
If the City Council doesn’t approve the ordinance, the city would have to pay for the vehicles using already depleted reserve funds, which the city keeps for emergency purposes, Bauer said.
During the public hearing for the first reading of the proposed ordinance Monday, residents complained of already high water and sewer bills and demanded city officials justify the need for an additional fee to purchase the vehicles. Customers currently pay $47 per month in flat fees, including $6 per month for costs to replace the Winston-Green Wastewater Treatment Plant.
The Winston Police Department is currently using three 2010 Dodge Chargers that have exceeded their life expectancy by age, mileage and repair costs, according to city officials. Cities typically replace police vehicles every three to five years because of heavy use, Bauer said.
City Councilor Dave Cunningham, who could not attend the meeting and called in, said the vehicles are in desperate need of replacement.
“When you have a squad car that went after a speeder and pulled into the Bi-Mart parking lot, and the front wheel of the squad car falls off the car, and then you have another squad car that the doors fell off, that is something that has to be addressed,” Cunningham said.
Some audience members laughed quietly at Cunningham’s comment while others shook their heads in disappointment.
The city doesn’t currently have a revenue source designated to the replacement of aged police equipment, Bauer said. The fee is intended to provide long-term funding for timely replacement of police vehicles.
It would have a five-year term at which point the city could decide whether or not to keep it to fund future vehicle replacement.
The new vehicles cost $52,000, according to the report from city staff. One vehicle would be paid for using money from the city’s general fund, which has a current balance of $82,435. The city would pay for the other two vehicles by taking out a $104,000 loan from the sewer plant’s fund at a two percent interest rate, which would be paid back at the end of the fee’s five-year term, city officials said.
“We thought that it was a better idea to pay ourselves that interest than to pay somebody else that interest,” Bauer said.
Lee McKay, a resident who spoke during the public hearing, questioned whether or not the city was using already high water fees and other taxes wisely.
“Where is all this money going?” McKay asked. “Everybody here would like a print out, right? Of where our money is going.”
Audience members voiced support for McKay.
“We pay a lot of taxes,” she said. “I’m really angry about adding more money to this.”
Bauer said residents’ property taxes don’t cover the full cost to run city departments. Property tax rates are at the current limit, according to state law. The city receives about $900,000 in property tax revenue annually, but the police department costs $1.2 million to operate, Bauer said.
“That’s why we need additional fees for capital projects,” he said.
Bauer listed several upcoming projects that the city must fund using revenue from water fees.
“The sewer fund, like I said, last year we had a line cave in up on Oak Street,” he said. “We had to replace that whole line under an emergency program. That was $120,000.”
City Councilor Scott Rutter said by adding a public safety fee to people’s water bills, nonprofits and other organizations that are exempt from city property taxes would contribute to funding the vehicles.
“We all pay this stuff too,” Rutter said. “This is not something we relish doing. The thing that I find in favor of the fee, personally, is that a fair percentage of the police department’s time is spent at various nonprofit addresses in the City of Winston.”
Police Chief Brandon Sarti said a study recently showed that 13.41 percent of all calls for service between 2016 and 2018 were to nonprofit addresses.
The City Council will have a second reading and decide whether or not to implement the fee at its next meeting on April 15.