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Zebulon budget would keep tax revenue almost neutral

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ZEBULON — The town of Zebulon will focus on its growing and diversifying population as part of its budget and strategic plan, officials said.

The 2020-21 proposed budget is more conservative than in recent years because COVID-19 is causing a strain on town revenue, said Town Manager Joe Moore.

The $13.5 million budget focuses on creating a vibrant downtown while focusing on small-town life, all of which are part of the Zebulon 2030 Strategic Plan, according to Moore.

The tax rate will be 55 cents per $100 valuation. This is slightly above the town’s revenue-neutral tax rate of 54.3 cents per $100. It moves the stormwater fee off the monthly water and sewer bill and moves it into property taxes, Moore explained. The current tax rate is 59.2-cents per $100 valuation.

While overall revenues are expected to be up from the 2019-20 budget, Moore expects to see decreases in sales tax, sales and service and the fund balance. Sales tax is expected to see a small decrease of less than $54,000 while sales and service is expected to be down by approximately $100,000. This is mainly due to parks and rec programs being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Property tax is expected to increase by around $1.2 million while restricted intergovernmental funds, such as taxes collected by the state and then given to Zebulon, are expected to remain about the same as the current year’s budget. However, Moore predicts taxes will be collected at a lower rate than previous years due to the pandemic. He also expects a delay in vehicle renewals and sanitation and recycling fee collections.

Operating and capital expenditures are expected to increase while the town’s debt load will decrease to $574,600. That will decrease even further in 2021-22 as the swaploader will fall off debt service in 2020-21.

Operating expenditures are expected to increase to $10.1 million. This includes making a part-time parks and rec assistant full-time and a 4% merit pay increase for employees who go above and beyond. The town currently has a 3.5% merit pay increase.

“We’re reserving that final 0.5% for the top performers who are receiving top ratings and doing bonus things,” Moore said. “It’s important to invest in the people we’ve got. If you reward them for doing good work, they will go above and beyond.”

One of Zebulon’s employees is bilingual, and he regularly helps Spanish-speaking contractors in the Planning Office, even though it is not part of his official duties. Employees like that would benefit from the increase in merit pay, Moore said.

The recommended operating budget does not include eight positions that departments requested. One of those positions, a patrol officer, may be able to be funded mid-year due to officers retiring, Moore added.

The operating expenses also include a state-wide increase in retirement contribution, contracting out park maintenance, special event funding and more.

Capital projects are expected to increase to $2.8 million. The fire station design, street resurfacing, construction on the North Arendell Sidewalk, fleet replacement and more are included in that.

It also includes the construction of three traffic signals at Arendell Avenue and Green Pace Road, Arendell Avenue and Pearces Road and Shepard School and Old Bunn roads. While Moore does not expect all three to be completed during the fiscal year, he wanted to make sure the town had the money to complete the project if it could do so.

Zebulon is also investing in efficiency, such as new planning software and changing an open position for an accountant into an accountant/budget analyst who can look at data trends over time. The town will also be investing in downtown, which produces the greatest amount of property and sales taxes per square foot, according to Moore. The town will focus on making alleyways more attractive and utilized, connecting alleyways and sidewalks and putting up wayfinding signs to help people locate parking and downtown attractions.

The proposed budget is available on the town’s website for citizens to review before the June 22 public hearing. The board is expected to adopt the budget ordinance at that meeting. It must be adopted before July 1 by state law.