By Alex Bridges
Strasburg utility customers could see higher bills beginning next month thanks to water and sewer projects spurred by strict health and environmental rules.
Town Council at its regular meeting Tuesday approved the fiscal 2014 budget and to adopt the ordinance required to allocate the funds in the spending plan. The budget also includes increases in the water and sewer rates that take effect July 1. Water rates will increase 12 percent while sewer will increase by 6 percent.
The budget as approved calls for the town to spend $9.96 million in the next fiscal year. A letter from Town Manager Judson Rex to Mayor Timothy Taylor and council members highlights the plan and changes made to reach a balanced budget.
The town will give the following amounts to local organizations: $8,000 to the Chamber of Commerce; $15,000 to the Strasburg Library; $13,000 to the Strasburg Museum and $4,500 to Hometown Strasburg.
The budget calls for the town to spend nearly $570,000 on capital projects, including water and sewer lines on King Street, improvements to the town park and pool and the Downtown Streetscape Enhancement Project
As officials and council members have said in previous discussion, the town had little choice but to raise the utility rates in order to pay for required upgrades to the water and sewer systems.
The budget includes a 2 percent, cost-of-living-allowance increase for town employees. However, all employees after July 1 must pay the full 5 percent contribution to the Virginia Retirement System.
But, as Town Manager Judson Rex noted Wednesday, the fiscal budget reflects changes made to the benefits offered to Strasburg employees. Such changes allow the town to save thousands of dollars each year, Rex said.
"We feel like we came up with some good compromises there," Rex said.
For example, the town changed health insurance plans to reduce costs, Rex said. The town also replaced six holidays on the work calendar with "flex" days. This reduces the number of holidays from 14 to eight. The town saves money by not having to pay time and a half to shift workers who work on holidays. Employees still have the six days during the year, but now they can choose when to take the time off, Rex explained. The town also has eliminated the two personal days given to employees.
The town saves approximately $18,500 per year by changing the holiday scenario. Changes in the health insurance plan saves about $30,000. Council also eliminated a separate cancer insurance coverage to save about $15,000 per year.
Town leaders have faced the challenge of balancing a budget in lean times. As Rex recalled, staff and council made changes in spending over the past three to four years. The town has reduced its workforce from 63 full-time employees to 58. Last spring council backed an effort by the town to shift to using part-time labor rather than pay overtime while trying not to affect the level of service, Rex explained. The effort focused mainly on the areas of public works and police.
"The difficulty is that each year we can kind of take a look at more things, but eventually we're going to hit a block wall and realize that we've cut as much as we can and there's nothing else that we can cut without affecting the level of service," Rex said.
But town leaders remain hopeful that the likely annexation of the adjacent industrial park can bring additional revenue to Strasburg. Rex said the added tax money should lead the town down a sustainable path for the next five years.
The town manager also noted that Strasburg should come out of the current fiscal year with a surplus of $45,000 in the general fund. Likewise, the town can expect to see a surplus next fiscal year, Rex added. Council would make the decision on how to use the surplus revenue. The surpluses are not related to the water and sewer rates established by the utility funds. Rex noted the town is setting money aside in the utility funds to reduce the need to raise rates in the near future.
Council also took up a matter related to efforts to improve the water system. Council agreed to purchase an easement necessary to install a water line and related pressure equipment between Crystal Hill and Madison Heights subdivisions. The connector is seen as a way to improve water flow and pressure to the area. Plans also call for the replacement of a water line along Laurie Drive. The town is using some of the money left over from the recent upgrade project to the water treatment plant.
"We still need the [water] storage, but this will at least help," Rex said.
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org