Let’s Wrap This Up

The Swansboro Board of Commissioners sort of lost its way last night at yet another public workshop on the new town budget.

Our manager, Scott Chase, did as we requested last week. He presented us with two proposed budgets for the coming fiscal year: One doesn’t raise taxes and the other includes a 4-cent tax increase that would restore the tax rate to where it was in 2013 before a previous board cut it. The budget that rests on the current tax rate is rather austere, but it still provides for the two new police officers we hired earlier this year, a new police cruiser to replace an aging one, needed equipment for the fire and public-works departments, part-time help for our finance director, a modest raise for employees and continuation of their health-care benefit. The alternate budget, with about $180,000 in additional revenue, obviously allows us to do more. Importantly, it would finance more sidewalks, which a majority on the board seem to want, and would allow us to set aside money in our capital reserve fund for big-ticket items, such as new fire trucks, that we know we’ll have to buy in the next five to seven years. The austere budget allocates just $25,000 for sidewalks, which won’t buy much, and nothing for those future purchases.

The choice seemed clear, but we got sidetracked by a long discussion about selling a building the town owns on Church Street instead of raising taxes. If this all sounds familiar, it is. The previous board had discussed selling the building in the center of town in 2016 and ’17. Public opposition dissuaded the board each time.

I’m not in favor of selling the building, fondly known as the Cigar Shop, that we currently lease to my dear friend George Asmar. Everybody loves George, and he loves Swansboro. He has expressed interest in buying the building.  Whether we sell the building to him or not, George isn’t going anywhere. We just renewed his lease, which runs to 2020.

It seems very short-sighted to me to sell town assets for a one-time infusion of cash. What do we do next year? Sell Town Hall and lease it back? The property is strategically located next to town-owned Pug Pavilion, the site of our very popular summer music series. While we may not have a good public use of the property now, who knows what we might think of five or 10 years from now. Once we sell the building, though, we lose control of it, probably forever. It should also be noted here that the building will generate about $16,000 in rental income for the town this year.

But most of the board members said they wouldn’t consider raising taxes without first selling the Cigar Shop. We scheduled a public hearing for Monday to elicit people’s comments on the proposed sale.

But we don’t have to sell the building or raise taxes. The manager presented us with a realistic, workable budget without a tax increase. I emailed him this morning that I will support it as long as it funds the same level of services to residents, provides for a modest pay raise for employees and maintains their health-care benefit.

That budget, I think, merely kicks the can down the road by not allowing us to put money aside for the big expenses we know are coming. We will inevitably have to discuss raising taxes — we haven’t done so in a decade — to maintain our level of services and provide for our staff. We’re not being honest with our residents if we don’t at least talk about it.

But this isn’t the year. Most of the board seems opposed to raising taxes, and these budget discussions are turning rancorous and wearing down our manager and staff. For everyone’s sake, it’s time to come to an agreement on the outline of a budget with no tax increases and start wrapping this us. The drum and flounder have started biting in the White Oak.

Author: Frank Tursi

Author, Journalist and mayor pro temp of Swansboro, NC

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