The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC


March 1, 2013

Idled equipment and unfunded mandates

TARBORO — (EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series of stories on the challenges facing the Town of Tarboro as 2013-2014 budget process gets under way. Today: Idled equipment and unfunded mandates.)

The day-to-day operation of municipal government can, at times, be an around-the-clock issue.

While office operations are of the 8-5 variety, the water treatment plant, wastewater treatment plant and electric plant are all essentially 24/7/365 operations. So, too, are the fire and police departments.

Even those departments that don’t operate 24/7, such as sanitation and streets, put their equipment through enough that the wear and tear takes its toll.

As a budgeting tool, depreciation is used to show the declining value of equipment based on its life expectancy. It allows, in theory, for the municipality to accumulate funds to replace the equipment.

In Tarboro, it hasn’t always worked that way.

The community, which has the lowest water and sewer rates in the Tar River Basin, has little excess money.

While those rates make it competitive in attracting industry, as council member Rick Page pointed out at the town retreat last weekend, “depreciation never covers replacing assets.”

And presently, the list of assets needing replacing is lengthy and growing longer on an almost daily basis.

There’s the almost $4 million in upgrades and renovation to the wastewater treatment plan and three segments of sewer line on the high end and laptop computers for police cars at $400 or so on the lower end. The list in-between would rival the most aggressive Christmas wish list a child could imagine.

Unlike years past, the town staff has to find ways to pay for the needed items.

“The policy in the past has been pay as you go,” Town Manager Alan Thornton said at the meeting. And noting that while there was nothing wrong with that policy, “We really don’t have any capital reserves left to do that anymore. We will look at other funding options.”

Across the board, every department had its wish list. Some were must-have items, such as air packs for the fire department to a $50,000 sump grinder for the electric department.

As department head after department head presented their report to council, it became crystal clear that the needs and great and the resources small.

“What I’m hearing from you,” Councilman Garland Shepheard said, “is that there is a lo of old equipment, pipes, trucks and much more, but the money’s just not out there to ask for more (equipment).”

Some items must be purchased, such as spare transformers to have on hand when one blows, or a garbage truck sidelined with a blown engine — just the latest in a string of costly repairs to that one unit.

Public Works Director Troy Lewis told council members the trucks were only a few years old, but the fact they operate all day long, Monday through Friday in all types of weather takes its toll.

Lewis said immediate replacement needs in public works includes:

• Garbage truck, $168,000

• Sewer jet vacuum, $330,000

• Tractor to mow right-of-way, $35,000

• Sewer line camera, $75,000

He also said several work trucks had reached the end of their economically efficient lifecycle. Each replacement would cost about $25,000.

Upcoming needs include two dump trucks at $55,000 each and a John Deere wheeled excavator at $200,000.

Lewis said other equipment, including lawn mowers; pumps, miscellaneous power equipment and tools have to be replaced on an ongoing basis.

At the electric department, director Buddy Harrison said his annual repair budget has already been spent with four months remaining in the fiscal year.

He said crews are replacing and rebuilding line to eliminate or reduce load loss and are replacing underground lines as they go bad.

“Some of those aren’t even there,” he said. “We can’t find them.”

To eliminate that problem, underground lines are now being put in conduit, rather than just lay in the trench.

Two major expenses facing Harrison’s department involve a 1993 digger/derrick truck, used to place poles. He replacement unit will cost $225,000.

“We can’t find parts for it any more,” he explained. “We can get a machine shop to make the part, but it’s expensive and if it breaks the very next day, it’s the same cost again because there’s no warranty.”

Harrison also said a new stump grinder — at a cost of $50,000 — was needed.

Fire Chief Frankie Winslow said his firefighters need to upgrade their air packs because the current packs in use will become outdated in 2015 and cannot be upgraded. Winslow said the town purchased 30 packs in 1999 through a grant and the cost to replace 10 would be $60,850.

An air pack is considered to be one of the most important pieces of equipment used in firefighting. It provides the oxygen that allows a firefighter to attack a blaze, rather than take a passive approach.

Another vital piece of equipment is the radio, which Winslow said were police department hand-me-downs two-to-three years ago.

“The old radios cannot be fixed and we have to be able to communicate,” he said.

New radios cost $2,439 each, making Winslow’s request for eight come in at $19,512.

But that’s not the big-ticket item Winslow needs to replace.

“Our trucks are getting old,” he said. “We have three (out of five) that are 20-plus years old each. Our reserve engine is 27 years old.”

Winslow said an all-diesel (engine and pumps) unit would cost $450,000.

Police Chief Damon Williams told council members, “We have no major capital requests, but next year is going to be big. We’re going to need vehicles, but we’re in good shape for right now.”

Williams wants to spend an extra $4,800 on training as well as replace several of the aging mobile data terminals (MDT) used by officers. Noting than some are seven years old, Williams said he would request an additional $6,000.

Williams and Winslow joined together in making a pitch for adding a second dispatcher to help handle the ever-increasing load.

As far as the unfunded mandates portion, town officials are working on the replacement of all incandescent and fluorescent lights, which will no longer be available after 2014.

“They are considerably more costly, but they last a much longer period of time,” council member Rick Page noted.

(COMING MONDAY: Planning for the future … in the town and at the parks.)




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