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Valley council discusses upcoming budget

VALLEY — The City of Valley is having its best year ever in terms of sales tax collections. With the stimulus checks because of Covid-19 and people staying close to home to shop, last year was a good year revenue-wise for the city, but this year is running well ahead of what came in last year. Through the first nine months of the 2020-21 fiscal year, revenue is up more than $900,000 from where it was last year, according to information shared during Thursday night’s city council work session. With three months still left in FY 2020-21, that figure will almost certainly top the $1 million mark.

“We have been up every month this year,” Mayor Leonard Riley said. “The stimulus money has really helped.”

Riley and members of the council discussed the city’s financials through the last reporting period June 30 and looked ahead to next year’s budget.

In her report to the council, City Clerk/Treasurer Cathy Snowden said that the sales tax numbers were good and that the department heads had done a good job staying within their budgets.

In addition to sales tax holding up strong, the financials show the impact of the John Soules Foods plant coming to town. There are many contractors on the site right now getting the plant ready to go into production later on this year. A very busy work zone is showing up in the form of the contractor license fees being way up. It shows an increase of over $30,000 from the previous year.

“No one is over their budget,” Snowden said of the department heads. “Everyone is watching their money.”

“Most of our capital expenditures have come out of the budget,” Riley said. “We have purchased everything the department heads requested.”

It looks like the department heads will get what they want next year, too.

The mayor and council went over that in discussing next year’s budget.

The Valley Police Department, for example, is asking for three new patrol cars at a cost of around $125,000. Also sought by VPD are eight more body cameras and seven more vehicle cameras, 25 new bulletproof vests and 35 nine-millimeter pistols and holsters. The Public Works Department has requested a new street sweeper that costs $170,000.

City employees who have been with the city for at least one year will be receiving a three percent raise; those who have been there longer than one year will be getting a five percent raise.

In June, the city received a federal stimulus payment of $1,085,ooo. The same amount will be received in June 2022 for a total of $2,170,000. That money can be spent on water and sewer projects along with public health and safety needs.

“It has to be spent by 2024,” Riley said. “You have to be careful in how you spend it. If you don’t spend it in the targeted areas you will have to refund it.”

The mayor said he was pleased to be giving raises.

“We have a lot of good city employees. They deserve it,” he said. “Those who stayed with us through Covid will be getting five percent raises. We also pay 70 percent of their family insurance. Not many cities do that. I think we are fairly competitive with surrounding cities in terms of the pay and benefits our employees receive.”

The raises will go into effect on Dec. 1, when next year’s insurance plan goes into effect.

Riley told council members that he is making conservative estimates with next year’s budget.

“The people who are working for John Soules Foods have been spending a lot of money here this year,” he said. “They will no longer be here when the plant starts up.”

Each department head discussed how their current budget is holding up and their needs for next year. Patrick Bolt of Public Works said that through the first nine months of the current fiscal year his department had been spending an average of $97,000 a month. That could go up to $132,000 a month over the final three months of FY 2020-21 and his department would break even.

“I have some money to spend, and I will probably do that,” he said.

Council Member Jim Jones said he liked the idea of getting a new street sweeper for Public Works.

“Having a street sweeper is important,” he said. “It will be worth it if it gets the leaves off the street and keeps everything from getting stopped up. The streets will look good, too.”

Jones asked the mayor where the city’s stimulus money would be spent. Riley said he’d like for most of it to be spent on the water, sewer and drainage needs in the city’s new industrial park. He said many industrial prospects have expressed interest in locating there but must be assured of adequate water and sewer service before they make a commitment.

Another option is to provide some help for EAMC-Lanier Hospital. Stimulus money can be spent on public health, and a hospital definitely fits that description. Riley said that EAMC in Opelika needs to remain financially viable to keep EAMC-Lanier in Valley.

He said the city would be willing to provide whatever assistance it can.

EAMC-Lanier employs over 500 people and is one of Chambers County’s largest employers.

“We need to get the water and sewer on in our industrial park so we can sell the land,” Riley said.

“People are interested. We need to spend as much as we can right now on infrastructure in our industrial park.”

Laurie Blount of Valley Parks and Recreation said she expected her department to be under budget by Sept. 30, the final day of the current fiscal year.

“We have got a lot done this year, and I am happy about that,” she said. “I think we have the right things coming out of the right budgets for next year.”

Something new that’s on the way is online registration for athletics, classes and memberships at the Community Center.

There are still some bugs to be worked out for new memberships but renewals of existing memberships can take place online.

Blount said that membership dropped during Covid but is slowly building back. There’s a common belief that gyms remain unsafe but that should lessen as Covid recedes as a danger.

A bright spot for Valley Parks and Recreation is the popularity of Lakeview Cabin as a destination for weekend rentals. “It’s $400 a day, and $500 if you decorate on Friday night,” Blount said. “We are renting it out two or three times a month.”

Riley said he’s glad he changed his mind about the cabin. “When I went to look at it when we first bought the land I thought we’d have to tear it down or sell it,” he said. “The building was in bad shape at the time and needed lots of repair work if we were going to keep it.”

Lakeview Cabin looked to be on a path toward being sold or demolished when Riley went back for a second look. “I stood beside the lake that’s out back and said to myself ‘What a fool I would be to sell this place.’”

The city invested some $30,000 in building improvements. Lakeview Cabin is now one of the more popular rental sites in the local area.

Travis Carter of Planning & Development told the mayor and council that his budget for next year will be pretty much the same as this year.

“I will be within budget at the end of the year,” he said.

Planning & Development is set for a $10,000 increase in next year’s budget.

Mike Reynolds discussed the police department budget. He will become the city’s new chief on Oct. 1.

“You’d better get used to this, Mike,” joked Tommy Weldon, the outgoing chief. “You will have to do this a lot.”

“We are on track with everything,” Reynolds said. “The budget is up some due to having three guys at the police academy. We usually have no more than one or two at a time.”

Riley said Weldon had asked for four new officers for next year. That would cost the city an additional $224,000 in a year’s time.

“I have put that on hold for now,” he said. “We’d like to have it, but we don’t know if our revenue will hold up. We’ll see.”