In Our Opinion-From News Herald Editorial Staff

Unless a better case is made, say 'no'

No matter how Lenoir City government characterizes its proposed stormwater utility fee, which is scheduled to come up for a final city council vote Monday, the benefits to the city budget are no different than a tax increase.
Lenoir City’s annual budget totals roughly $10 million, meaning the estimated $500,000 the new fee is expected to raise will increase city revenues by 5 percent since there are no planned corresponding cuts in other areas of the budget. While true that proceeds from the fee must be earmarked for stormwater management — a tax increase could just impact the general fund — the city’s explanation of how money from the fee will be spent has some trouble holding water.
According to an information sheet provided two weeks ago by City Administrator Amber Scott to members of the Lenoir City Committee of 100, “Money gathered through the stormwater utility fee will go toward better stormwater project management, which includes drainage studies and drainage study project implementation, equipment purchase and maintenance, regulatory compliance, and more.”
Unfortunately, it appears the vast majority of the money raised from the fee will fall into the category of “more,” specifically under wages and salary expenses for employees already on the city payroll.
Detailed in a report that begins on the front page of this edition, the city plans to use the fee to fund 100 percent of the stormwater manager’s salary, 50 percent of the city planner’s salary, 50 percent of the codes enforcement officer’s salary and 50 percent of wages in the street department. In fact, street department wages alone will use about $270,000 of the money based on 2016-17 budget figures.
While it appears the city can legally pay those wages with the proposed fee, officials have been disingenuous at best when communicating with the public why the stormwater fee is imperative for the upcoming budget, nor has the city outlined how it will approach stormwater management differently in the future. Using proceeds from the fee in the way planned by the city would, in essence, free up at least $350,000 in the general fund, but mayor and council have provided no clear direction on how those funds will be used. Scott tacitly referenced parks, public safety and possibly increasing the fund balance. She was also clear that the city chose to pursue a fee because schools, churches and other non-profits would not pay under a tax increase.
Until Lenoir City officials can justify the need for this fee beyond the ability it offers to shuffle salary expenses into a different line item, council should vote against what is effectively a tax increase.