In the face of a weak economy and growing costs, Chapel Hill’s effort to better balance its budget is causing confusion among members of the Chapel Hill Town Council.
On Wednesday, the council ranked 25 goals and prioritized funds for long-term projects — and development was at the top of the council’s list. Environmental stewardship ranked as the lowest priority.
The town first used the priority-based system last year to allocate its $90.5 million budget.
The system — which allows the town to adjust department budgets individually rather than make across-the-board cuts — is also intended to provide more opportunities for public input. But some council members question its ability to simplify the budgeting process.
“As Councilman (Jim) Ward said, these words are so amorphous that I truly am not sure what they mean,” Town Council member Matt Czajkowski said.
“I think in an effort to tie in Chapel Hill 2020, council goals and everything else all into words that somehow fit together, you end up diluting the words to the point where it’s not really clear what they mean.”
Czajkowski said the ambiguity of these budget categories — which include community, safety and accessibility — makes the initiatives bleed into one another, creating confusion about what the voters actually wanted.
“Interestingly, the one thing that struck me was that parking was amongst the lowest priorities when you look at the consensus votes of the council,” Czajkowski said. “Are people really saying we don’t need to spend anymore money or time on parking? Maybe, but I think that’s a bit of a revelation to me because I really wonder if the community as a whole would agree with that.”
Ward said prioritizing issues will have real consequences — perhaps detracting from the town’s ability to fund projects, such as operating the newly-expanded Chapel Hill Public Library.
“The top priorities probably will get funding,” Ward said. “It’s those priorities in the middle and lower end that have some support and are very worthwhile but because we’re fiscally constrained they may not get the funding level they’re requesting.”
The closing of the Orange County landfill in June and move toward shipping town waste to the Durham Transfer Station will also cost the town.
Ward said the council will not know how much can be allocated toward these projects until the 2013-14 budget is adopted on June 10.
But he believes that in time, the council will adapt to the new process and become more efficient overall.
“As we get further into it, it will be a way of using a scalpel instead of a sledgehammer to deal with issues so we are much more strategic in how we use the limited funds we do have,” he said.
Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said he is also confident the priority budgeting process will help determine the town’s budget more accurately without having to raise taxes.
“We don’t want to raise taxes,” Kleinschmidt said.
“That’s always been the rule. This is hopefully going to help direct the staff on how they’re going to write the budget so we don’t have to raise taxes.”
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