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Board hears top budget priorities from department heads


Hope Mills’ Board Commissioners and the head of each town department met for a dinner workshop Thursday evening to discuss priorities for the upcoming fiscal year.

Interim Town Manager Chancer McLaughlin said the aim of the dinner and open dialogue with department heads was to help demonstrate to those involved the achievability of putting together a feasible budget.

Mayor Jessie Bellflowers says he wanted the town to work together to create the budget. “We are going to do this together,” Bellflowers said. “This is our budget. It’s not a board of commissioners budget, it’s our budget.” 

“We have some tough decisions and are going to have some hard conversations,” he continued. “But, by God, we are going to do this together.”


During the meeting Thursday, McLaughlin and Finance Director Drew Holland outlined their top priorities, which largely overlapped: working towards a possible tax increase and finalizing the town pay study. 

McLaughlin said he wants to focus on the possible tax increase due to the change in the tax structure in Cumberland County. The new tax structure will leave the town with a $1.9 million dollar deficit in the fiscal year 2025-26. This means that the upcoming fiscal year 2024-25 will be the last time to prepare for this change.

Holland said one way to prepare for the deficit is to put current sales tax into reserves. He does not want to use sales tax to fund town projects, which he noted the town has done for the last few budget amendments.

Another way to prepare for the deficit, according to Holland and McLaughlin, is a proposed tax increase.

Holland said it’s been almost 10 years since the town implemented a tax increase and he wants to have a proposed property tax increase to help pay off future costs for the town.

McLaughlin told the board that they wanted to raise salaries for town staff — including the police department, who made their own plea last month — in early 2023. The board, however, voted to reject a 4-cent property tax hike. The proposed tax rate would have increased the tax rate to 50 cents per $100 of property valuation. McLaughlin said that the average increase would have been an additional $8 a month for the average Hope Mills homeowner.

The proposed tax increase led to heated discussions. Board Commissioner Elyse Craver raised concerns about the possible tax increase, specifically pointing to senior citizens and residents who might pay for services they may not be using. 

Mayor Pro Tem Kenjuana McCray and Board Commissioner Joanne Scarola rebutted her point, saying that all Hope Mills residents pay an education fee as established by Cumberland County, even if they do not have children. McCray also said that the town needs to have more wiggle room in order to not cut projects or events.

“It takes money to do stuff in this town,” Scarola said, agreeing with McCray. “Stuff is not getting cheaper, it’s getting more expensive. We can’t stay at status quo and people are expecting that. We cannot stay at status quo with the current money we have. It’s impossible. We have to raise taxes because otherwise, else we aren’t going to have all the things we do need.”

Craver argued that Hope Mills’ money had been spent on things the town did not need, while other priorities demand greater attention. 

“I think our policeman, our fireman…our roads and streets, we need to take care of that stuff and those departments before we go and spend thousands of dollars on a splash pad or something else to spend ARPA money,” Craver said.

There was confusion between Craver and town staff about the usage of funds and how certain funds could only be used for certain projects. Craver asked how American Rescue Plan Act funds were used for parks and recreation projects but not to increase salaries. Holland and McLaughlin explained that the ARPA funds would be a one-time use and the town would have to find that money separately the following year.

“It’s obvious that this board is going to vote for a tax increase,” Craver said. “But I think that if we budget our money better and stop wasting money, and I see it all the time, we could do better.”

Town administration

The top three priorities for the town’s administration include creating a new administrative assistant position, increasing training and remote work availability, and increasing the travel budget.

  • The administrative assistant position would serve as a communication liaison between departments and the administration and help with task management. The cost for this position would be $38,382.
  • The increased training and travel budget would cost $10,000; this is an increase of $3,000 from the current fiscal year.
  • The increased remote work availability would be free.

Human resources

The top three priorities for the town’s human resources department include digitizing the department’s materials, streamlined HR processes, and an employee self-service portal.

  • “Our priority is to digitize everything,” Leesa Jensen, the human resources director, said.
  • Moving to a paperless format will be effective, according to Jensen. She said that many of their current programs don’t work or merge together.  The department is looking at using Tyler ERP Pro, a software program that they already use for finances and human resources staff; the department would add on applicant, benefits and staff portals.
  • Jensen said the estimated cost is around $45,000.

Stormwater department

The top three priorities for the town’s stormwater department include contracted cleaning, outfall maintenance, and continued support of town infrastructure projects.

  • Beth Brown, the stormwater administrator, says the department would like a minimum of $100,000 for contracted cleaning to help remove debris from the town’s storm drainage systems, which help decrease flooding. Brown says contracting the work out saves the town money because they do not have the equipment, and it would be more expensive to buy the trucks rather than have another company do it.
  • The current budget, through state funding, is $100,000. In previous years, the budget was $50,000, Brown said. However, the department wants to make sure they have enough funds in case of emergencies like hurricanes.
  • Some of the outfalls are inaccessible for equipment access. Outfalls are the places where a river, drain, or sewer empties into the sea, a river, or a lake. They would like to spend the next fiscal year identifying easements and outfalls to schedule in-house maintenance. Brown said she does not believe these need any funding outside of their budget.

Planning department

The top priorities for the town’s planning department include buying new vehicles, adding another zoning/code enforcement officer, increasing training, filling the planning director position, re-establishing the department’s own planning board and hiring someone to create the GIS mapping for the town.

  • Emily Weidner, the town planner, said the new zoning/code enforcement officer would help with commercial developments and strengthen their enforcement of ordinance violations.
  • The code enforcement department wants to purchase two new vehicles and other pertinent equipment necessary for performing inspections. 
  • Before Hope Mills can have their own planning board, they need GIS mapping staff, according to Weidner. The town is currently only part of the Cumberland County Joint Planning Board because of GIS mapping, Weidner said. GIS mapping is a system that creates a map that layers data like real estate data, demographics, political boundaries and soil information.
  • McLaughlin mentioned that the hiring of GIS mapping staff could be a grant project. He did not specify how many staff the department is looking to hire.

Inspections department

The top priorities for the town’s inspections department are staff retention and professional development.

  • The department has two technicians and four inspectors. The inspections staff is a specialized department, said Kenny Tatum, the chief building director. Tatum said outside agencies have been trying to attract Hope Mills staff to bigger cities and counties.
  • “I want to make sure they are being paid properly for what they do,” Tatum said. “If we got new folks, we need to keep them anyway we can.”
  • The department has an $8,000 budget for the current fiscal year, Tatum said.“I’m probably going to be spending every penny of that,” he said.
  • In 2023, the inspections department staff issued 22,042 permits, collected almost $900,000 in fees, and completed almost 3,700 inspections. 

Fire department

The top three priorities for the town’s fire department are to unfreeze three firefighter positions from the 2021-2022 budget, increase the automotive maintenance budget, and increase salaries.

  • Fire Chief Steve Lopez said that the department is experiencing an “all hands on deck” situation, so filling those additional three firefighter positions will help. Lopez said that nights are an issue because the station is sometimes abandoned while everyone is out on calls.
  • Lopez also wants $10,000 to be added back into the automotive maintenance budget, which had been eliminated in last year’s budget in order to cut down on costs. Lopez says the cost to fix equipment has skyrocketed, as parts are being outsourced and delivery times are delayed.

Police department

The top three priorities for the town’s police department include increasing pay, increasing staffing levels and adding more vehicles.

  • Captain Mitch Deavers said his office has 46 sworn positions and they want to have 54 paid positions. He said he also wants to hire a part-time intel analyst that would work nights to help focus on internet crimes.
  • Deavers says he wants to replace five vehicles as soon as possible. These are marked police vehicles. Deavers said he also wants to buy two vehicles via grants. One would be a command post and the other would be a minivan used by the victim witness coordinator. This minivan would help transport a family, and hold snacks, clothes and toys for victims.

Public works department

The top priorities for the town’s parks and recreation department include finishing current projects and preparing for street repairs.

The current street projects include Woodland Hills, East Patterson Street, Creek Clearing and Pringle Way. The Woodland Hills project, which needs to repair a failing stormwater system, replace and resurfacing the road, has been estimated at $1.98 million. Currently the funding for the project is less than $630,000.

According to Sisko, Pringle Way, the street, needs significant work. Its project has gone out to bids twice, and has been unsuccessful both times. He hopes to revamp the application and put it out for bid again later this year. With initial estimates, he believes this project could cost approximately $1 million.

Don Sisko, the Public Works director, says that while they technically have the budget to carry out all of the projects, they wouldn’t have any money for emergency road repairs if something came up.

The department would also like to add a few new positions as well: a public safety building maintenance technician and a street division operator.

Operational requirements for this year include town hall lights, rotary wheel balancer, bridge repairs with engineering support, replacement of an asphalt reclaiming trailer and installation of a dam drainage system.

Sisko says the N.C. Dept. of Transportation is currently assessing all the bridges in Hope Mills.

Sisko said the town also needs to start looking at creating a new town cemetery. There are, at most, 427 plots left in the two town cemeteries, he said, so the board must decide if they want to open a new cemetery or to stop providing those services.

Parks & Recreation department

The top priorities for the town’s parks and recreation department include finishing the inclusive playground and splash pad, renovating tennis courts, expanding pickleball courts, creating a new senior center, and finishing construction of Heritage Park.

More than 70% of the playground, which had its grand opening in September, is ADA-accessible, according to a 2023 press release. For phase two of the inclusive playground and splash pad, the department wants to install shaded areas, picnic tables, a specialty wheel-chair swing, a concrete pad, and landscaping. The total price for phase two would be $180,000, but the town is looking for donations.

The current tennis courts are in danger of being closed by the town due to being unsafe in accordance with ADA accessibility standards. Lamarco Morrison, the parks and recreation director, said he wants to resurface the existing tennis courts and add sports lighting and additional lines for pickleball. This project would cost $55,000.

Morrison also proposed a new project in the form of a Hope Mills Senior Center and Gymnasium. He said this building would not just focus on being a center for senior citizens, but would also address the growing need for spaces for those with specialized needs. This project would be a 15,000-square-foot building with three multi-purpose classrooms, a gymnasium, pickleball courts, two offices for senior programming staff, and a new maintenance shed. This project would be located at the Golfview Greenway property off Golfview Road.

Morrison would like to spend $1.2 million from ARPA funds, possible General Obligation (GO) Bonds, and then look for state grants. GO bonds are municipal bonds backed solely by the credit and taxing power of the town. GO bonds are issued with the belief that a municipality will be able to repay its debt obligation through taxation or revenue from projects and are voted on by the residents.The total cost for this project would be $6.2 million.

Morrison also stated he would like to finish the Heritage Park project this year as well. A bid has been accepted, but more decisions on Heritage Park funding will come at the next regular board meeting on Jan. 22.

Outside of these specific requests, there were also talks about increasing town staff, hiring interns and expanding town hall. The town hall currently does not have receptionists and several town department heads said many in their departments are having to double up on priorities. 

For example, the two technicians from the inspections department have to answer the phones for town hall. However, because they are gone from the desk during that time, the phone calls for their own department often go to voicemail.

Another topic that came up was hiring a collection agency to stay on top of inspection fees. According to Fire Marshall Bobby Carter, as of Thursday, $4,100 remains currently uncollected. McLaughlin acknowledged that for many fees, the town cannot fully enforce people to pay them, so a collection agency may be able to create the legal action to kickstart some of those paybacks.

At the next budget meeting, on Feb. 5, elected officials will present what their priorities are. On Feb. 19, the board will meet with the Cumberland County delegates to discuss if there are funds the delegates could ask for regarding any projects. The board would also like to meet with the Cumberland County Commissioners to see if the county could fund any projects.

The town will hold a budget retreat on March 7.

Contact Hannah Lee at hannahleenews@gmail.com.

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