12/30/08 — City manager sees slowdown in coming year

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City manager sees slowdown in coming year

By Anessa Myers
Published in News on December 30, 2008 1:46 PM

City Manager Joe Huffman believes 2008 was a pretty good year for Goldsboro, with many large projects like the historic City Hall renovation and rebuilding of the Paramount Theatre coming to a close.

But he admits that 2009 may bring unsteady ground, and some projects that were scheduled to begin may be put on hold so that the city's core operations can be properly maintained.

"For the first time, I'm hearing people think we should hold off on projects, people in all categories," he said.

In the past, he said, residents wanted the city to hold off only on those projects that they weren't interested in.

"They always had their own pet project. They didn't want a tax increase, but they wanted to cut someone else's project," Huffman said. "Now I'm hearing, 'Oh gosh, maybe the city should hold off on all projects.'"

There are some exceptions, he said -- a small amount of people still want the city to move forward with projects like the more than $12 million Community Recreation Center.

But he emphasizes that those people are the minority.

"I'm not hearing that as much," he said. "Most of the people don't want us to stop the projects altogether -- they just want us to wait and see what the economy does."

Huffman said that city officials need to focus on keeping the city's current parks, facilities and equipment maintained.

"We've done so many things with big projects, that we have a lot of things that we need to repair and buy, like the parks, police trucks, fire trucks, code enforcement vehicles. Every department has some capital needs," he said.

To try and make up for a financial shortfall that isexpected in 2009 -- which is estimated to be $1.8million -- the city needs to work toward increasing revenue, since the city has already cut expenditures to a dangerously low level, Huffman said.

"We have cut as much as we can," he said of the city's budgeted spending. "We can't maintain the city where we are now. There will be negative operational impacts if we do. We need to buy equipment to keep services going."

And because of the serious need for equipment to keep up day-to-day operations, like police cars and sanitation trucks to name a few, he doesn't foresee any new projects coming on line next year.

"We have a lot on our plate, and if we can do well with all of that, I will be happy," he said. "We vowed that we would purchase 10 police cars a year to make up for the age of the vehicles. Since I've been here (January will be Huffman's fourth year as city manager), we have purchased maybe two a year, and none the last few years. So, we have a lot of catching up to do."

The projects that are currently planned for the 2009 year include a Community Recreation Center and Union Station, but the city has to put a lot more money into the recreation center than the station -- $12 million compared to $100,000.

Huffman said that the city's water plant will also need some upgrades in the near future, but he is hoping that the federal government will help with that, as well as with Union Station and the Community Recreation Center, with some of the stimulus packages that are being discussed.

"We have sent all of our information in," he said. "They are looking for something that is ready to go, and the recreation center is ready to go. And Union Station is close to being put out to bid."

Still, he isn't putting total faith in the handout, and the City Council is going to have to make some big decisions after the first of the year.

"The City Council retreat (in February) is going to be big," he said. "It's going to be decision time."

And other areas, like the parks and recreation facilities, really need to be tackled, especially W. A. Foster Center.

The city has some Community Development Block Grant funds -- more than $129,000 -- left to spend, and W. A. Foster Center is on the list of possible recipients of that money along with sidewalks on Slocumb Street and tennis courts at Mina Weil Park.

Huffman expects W. A. Foster Center to be around for a long time.

"No one has talked about closing it. If it remains a viable center in the community once the recreation center is opened, it will stay open," he said. "Now, if the recreation center opens, and W.A. Foster is not being used and we have to close doors because of lack of use, then that's another story."

For now, the city's big project -- the Community Recreation Center -- is up in the air.

But if the economy turns around soon, Huffman said he can see more people getting on board with the fitness center.

And, he admits, that the center won't be for everyone's use, but it still needs the bulk of the city's support.

"If you don't invest in something you don't specifically use, it will fall into disrepair. ... Social Security is a good example. I pay into it, and I know I won't see any money from it," Huffman said. "If everybody could pay for only what they use, then we wouldn't need government. It is revenue that we all put together for the common good."

In the end, he said that there are good and bad elements to every financial picture.

"Right now, it's all about your perspective on life," Huffman said. "Some who say it is going to be a terrible two years are thinking about a depression and holding back spending and all these things that could go wrong. Others say now that gas prices are the lowest in years, there is a lower interest rate, bids are far lower and that we need to move forward to progress.

"It's a double-edged sword. I don't know which way it will go."

But as for 2008, he believes it was a "phenomenal year as far as accomplishments go," with finishing renovations on historic City Hall and rebuilding and opening the Paramount Theatre.

But those projects were just the icing on the cake, he said.

Keeping recreational programming strong and cleaning up the city have also been crucial accomplishments.

"With a few exceptions, the city looks a lot cleaner. ... We have seen a lot of commercial action going on downtown and in the other areas of the city. We have seen a tremendous amount of growth overall," Huffman said.

The four-year-long battle over annexation of areas off of Buck Swamp and Salem Church roads finally came to a close this year, too, he said, adding in more than 1,200 homes to the city limits.

Now, the city has millions of dollars to pay back for all of those improvements to the city -- including $4.5 million worth of debt on the Paramount Theatre, $3.7 million in debt on historic City Hall and $3.3 million in debt on City Hall Annex constructions.

But that's something that Huffman said city officials knew going in.

"To improve the city, you have to invest in the city," he said.

And municipal governments don't always see a return on the money they put in, he added.

"That's why we do the things that private businesses don't," Huffman said. "If these projects made money, they would be doing them. ... We do the things that will improve the city and make good long-term financial sense."

The manager said that the Paramount Theatre, for instance, isn't making money, and he said city officials knew it wouldn't.

"We knew it wouldn't bring in enough revenue to pay for itself," he said. "But people who come to the theater spend money in Goldsboro, will likely eat in Goldsboro and may shop in Goldsboro. That improves our city as a whole. That money doesn't show up on our balance sheet for the Paramount Theatre, but that's why we did it.

"We are about community investment. We are not about the bottom line at the end of the year. We look at how it will affect our citizens over a period of decades."