Town Asks for Lower Speed Limit

The Swansboro Board of Commissioners last night unanimously approved a resolution asking the state Department of Transportation to consider lowering the speed limit on western end of Corbett Avenue to 35 mph, from the current 45 mph.

In an otherwise uneventful meeting, we also approved an annexation petition from the owners of the new Moore’s barbecue restaurant and approved a permit to allow Swansboro High School to use town equipment and services for a marching band competition at the school.

The resolution starts the process of possibly lowering the speed limit on about 1,000 feet of Corbett, from the State Employees Credit Union to the start of the existing 35 mph zone. The road is a state-owned highway, N.C. 24, and only DOT can change the speed limit.

The agency studied how fast vehicles are traveling on that section of highway and found that 85 percent are moving at speeds close to 45 mph. DOT uses that 85th percentile to insure posted speed limits aren’t artificially low. I’m certainly no expert in these matters but I have to question a policy that seems to define the safe speed as what most drivers say it is. Had 85 percent of them been doing 57 mph, instead of 47 mph, would DOT raise the speed limit?

That end of Corbett is rapidly developing. A new intersection with a light is planned at Norris Road and the Walmart driveway. While current conditions may support DOT’s overly technical position, reality may soon dictate otherwise. Ken Jackson, our police chief, told us the speed limit should be lowered. That sealed it for me.

DOT said it would further consider the request if the board passed a resolution asking for the lower speed limit and guaranteeing that our police would enforce it.

A special-events application from Saltwater Grill for a beer garden during the Mullet Festival was removed from the agenda after our town attorney advised us that no permit was needed. The beer would be served on private property, in the parking lot at the foot of Church Street where the food vendors have set up for decades, and would not require town services. Thus, said our lawyer, no town permit is needed.

Keagy Appointed to Empty Seat

The Board of Commissioners last night elected Phil Keagy to fill an empty seat on the board. They also passed ordinances that allow beer and wine to be served at catered events at the Recreation Center, ban the release of helium-filled balloons and require the use of paper bags for curbside yard waste.

Filling the seat vacated when Commissioner Angela Clinton resigned last week was the night’s main event. Board members nominated three candidates: Keagy, Jeff Conaway and Larry Philpott. Keagy got two votes when the four commissioners cast their ballots and Philpott and Conaway each got one.

I nominated and voted for Philpott because he was the fourth-leading vote getter in the November election, missing the third available seat by less than 20 votes. He went through the public vetting of an election and was to me the logical and rightful replacement. Philpott has also remained involved in local affairs, serving on our Planning and Parks and Recreation boards.

Because none of the candidates received the required majority votes of the five-member board, Mayor John Davis, who votes only in case of ties, cast the deciding ballot for Keagy.

A native of Swansboro who lives downtown, Keagy served on the board until November when he chose no to run for re-election.

The new ordinance allows people who reserve rooms at our Rec Center for catered events to serve beer and wine. The alcohol must be served by the caterer and consumed in the reserved room. All state ABC laws must be observed.

The ordinance, like the two others, passed unanimously.

Released balloons present grave threats to wildlife, especially birds and sea turtles, which can mistake the deflated plastic for a squid. The ordinance makes it illegal to release “balloons” in town limits. The use of the plural and the judgment of our cops should prevent us from fining the kid at the Mullet Festival whose balloon slipped out of her hand. Swansboro joins Wrightsville Beach as the only towns in the state that ban the release of balloons.

Our Public Works Department picks up almost 10,000 plastic bags of yard waste each year. The bags can’t be recycled and must be emptied by hand and disposed of at the county landfill. Starting Oct. 1, our trucks will only pick up yard waste packed in paper “lawn” bags.

We Have Some Shoes to Fill

The Board of Commissioners may fill an unexpected vacancy on the board and consider two environmental ordinances – one prohibiting the release of helium-filled balloons and the other banning the use of plastic bags for yard waste pickup – when it meets Tuesday at Town Hall.

The board must fill the seat vacated by Commissioner Angela Clinton, who resigned last week because of a family health issue. Angela, the leading vote getter in last November’s election, was an able commissioner whose preparedness and attention to detail will be missed. I know all the commissioners wish her and her family the best during this trying time.

According to state law, the board must appoint someone who will serve until the election in November 2019. The names I’ve heard as potential candidates: Larry Philpott, Phil Keagy, Jerry Seddon and Jim Allen.

Philpott served on the board from 2009-2013. He ran for election last year and missed by a handful of votes of winning one of the three seats. Philpott currently serves on our Planning and Parks and Recreation boards. Keagy  was a commissioner until last year when he decided not to run for re-election. The commissioners recently appointed Seddon, a relative newcomer to town, to the Planning Board. A longtime commissioner, Allen lost his re-election bid in 2015.

We may decide to choose among those or other nominees when we meet Tuesday or the board could delay the appointment until our meeting on Aug. 28 to allow more candidates to come forward.

Balloons may be festive additions to birthdays, weddings, graduations and such, but they pose a grave threat to animals once they get loose.  Birds, sea turtles and other animals commonly mistake balloons for food, which can harm or kill them. Many animals can also become entangled in balloon strings, which can strangle them or injure their feet.

For those reasons, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Ocean Conservancy and several other organizations recommend banning the mass release of helium balloons. Five states and at least seven cities have done so, according to balloonsblows.org. Wrightsville Beach is the only town in the state with a local ordinance banning balloon releases.

Town resident Patricia Stone asked the board several weeks ago to consider a similar ban. The proposed ordinance would make it illegal to release an inflated balloon in town limits. Violators could be fined $250.

I support such a measure because I’ve seen what a deflated balloon floating in the ocean does to a loggerhead sea turtle that mistakes it for a squid. Biologists speculated the turtle died a slow death. I would, however, like to see the ordinance amended slightly to exclude the accidental release of a balloon. We don’t want to fine a five-year-old at the Mullet Festival whose balloon slipped out of his hand.

Our Public Works Department now picks up plastic bags filled with grass clippings, leaves and other small items of yard waste. We’re talking about thousands of bags a year. Because the bags can’t be recycled, each one must be ripped open by hand and its contents emptied. The town then pays a fee to dispose of the bags at the county landfill.

At our budget retreat in March, the commissioners agreed this seemed wasteful and expensive and directed the department to recommend a change. The proposed ordinance would ban plastic bags for yard waste and require “lawn-style” paper bags.

The meeting starts at 6 p.m. Hope to see you there.

Not Just Another Plan

We’ll have a public meeting next week on our new land-use plan.

After you stop yawning, I hope you’ll read on because the meeting is important. This updated plan will shape the future of our town, and the meeting gives you an opportunity to shape the plan.

The meeting will be Tuesday at Town Hall, starting at 4 p.m. You can drop in any time before 7 p.m. Town officials and the consultants we hired to help us will be on hand to explain the process and get your ideas about the type of development you’d like to see and where you would like it to go. We’ll even have food available and activities to keep the kids occupied.

Big deal. Another plan, you say. There are so many already attracting silverfish somewhere. You’re right. We have transportation plans, recreation plans, bike and trail plans, watershed plans and even a high-falutin’ Renaissance Plan and Gateway Plan. We’ve acted on some while others are propping up a bookshelf somewhere in Town Hall.

The land-use plan is different. Unlike all those others, it’s the only plan mandated by state law. It’s the only one that the Board of Commissioners must attest to when making any development decision. We can’t approve a project that doesn’t adhere to our land-use plan without also modifying the plan. The state can’t issue permits for projects that run afoul of our plan.

So that makes this plan different…. Or at least it can be if you want it to be.

A Bit of History

The Coastal Area Management Act, the now famous CAMA, was passed by the state legislature in 1975. Controversial then, it’s one of those high-minded laws that would be impossible to fashion in today’s highly polarized political culture. The law, a mirror of a federal law passed in 1972, attempted to address the rampant, virtually unchecked development that was threatening to overtake our coastal culture and overwhelm our natural environment.

At the heart of the law is the requirement that each of the 20 coastal counties prepare plans that would balance growth with environmental protection and would become the foundation for local development ordinances. In that way, the plans would serve as blueprints for future development. Fashioned by local people, the plans were meant to be their vision of what they wanted their communities to be.

The law gave cities and towns the opportunity to opt out of their county plans if they prepare ones that are more customized. Swansboro, like many coastal communities, decided to write its own plan.

The theory behind the plans was sound: Local people deciding how they wanted to live. The reality, though, was predictable. Decisions to control local growth often angers powerful, monied interests. Protecting shorelines, for instance, worth billions in real-estate value and millions in tax base requires courageous, inspired political leadership.

That’s a commodity that’s always in short supply. Instead, like water, most of the original land-use plans followed the course of least resistance, meeting the minimum CAMA requirements while erecting the fewest possible development barriers. Most counties dragged their feet to meet the deadline for their plans’ adoption. A couple even refused to fashion plans, forcing the state to undertake the job.

The original law recognized that good planning is ongoing and required that the plans be amended every five years to adjust for changing circumstances. Most communities were as enthusiastic to update their plans as they had been to write the originals. They assigned the task to consultants with orders to get the job done to meet the law’s requirements. A cottage industry soon developed. The plans became little more than boilerplate documents. Whole sections were lifted from one plan and inserted in another. Few contained any real policy directives. When development decisions violated any of the few policies, the governing bodies merely amended the plan to reflect the new decisions.

Recognizing that grim reality, the legislature a few years ago amended CAMA to remove the update requirement. Counties and towns now can volunteer to update their plans, and the state may provide a little money to do so.

So Here We Are

Swansboro’s commissioners decided this year to amend our nine-year-old plan. They appointed a steering committee made of up taxpayers, who represent a cross section of interests, to guide the new plan’s development. The committee, which I chair, hired Stewart engineering of Raleigh to help us. We’ve met a couple to times to begin forming the boundaries of the new plan.

Now, it’s your turn. This plan will only be as good as you want it to be. This isn’t the committee’s plan or the consultant’s plan or the commissioners’ plan. This is Swansboro plan. This is your plan. What do you want in it? Should we protect wetlands and green space, for instance? Should we limit development in flood-prone areas? Should we allow apartments and high-density development? And, if so, where should it go? What about development along N.C. 24?

All are important questions that need answers. Your answers. Tuesday is your opportunity to provide them.  I hope you take advantage of it.

I also hope that you attend the steering committee meetings, which are open to the public. We meet the second Tuesday of the month in the auditorium of One Harbor Church. Come and help guide Swansboro’s future.

New Budget: Sidewalks and Fire Trucks

The Swansboro Board of Commissioners Tuesday will hold a public hearing on the new town budget for the coming year. We’ll likely pass it, though I won’t vote for it.

There are some things to commend in the proposed $4.3 million budget: It provides residents with the same level of services without raising taxes. It also puts aside about $54,500 in a capital reserve fund as a down payment for large future expenses, such as $1 million in new fire trucks that we’ll need in the next decade. Add the $43,000 that we’ll put in that account after selling our old fire truck and we have a nice nest egg for future purchases of fire apparatus.

But there are many other things in this budget that I can’t support. To come up with that down payment and another $50,000 for sidewalks without raising taxes, the board revised the budget proposed by the town manager, redirecting thousands of dollars from a host of items that the manager had proposed.

Our finance director told us she needs fulltime help to do her job more efficiently. She works long hours and is hard-pressed to meet the demands of the job while fulfilling state and federal reporting requirements. Burn out is a real concern. She also needs modern financial software.

The commissioners, though, decided not to set aside money for the software package and opted to provide her with part-time assistance. That made another $25,000 available for sidewalks and firetrucks.

The commissioners think they’ve found another $17,000 by cutting what we now pay for our town attorney by almost 47 percent. We currently contract with Ward and Smith of New Bern for our legal services. Their lawyer is on retainer. He attends two board meetings every month and is available for unlimited consultations. I don’t think anyone on the board would disagree that Ward and Smith has provided us with excellent legal advice. The commissioners, though, have set aside about $19,000 in their budget for a piecemeal legal plan that would provide some basic level of service. We would pay for anything else at an hourly rate.

We’re still shopping that contract around with law firms in the area. No one, at the moment, is really sure what we’ll get for our money. I’ll go out on a limb and predict we that won’t get the same level of service for half the price.

Eliminating the fulltime finance position, deleting money to set aside for the financial software and the bare-bones legal plan provide most of $100,000 for sidewalks and fire trucks. The rest comes from a bunch of nickel-and-dime cuts: about $10,000 from various travel and training budgets; $5,000 from the fire department’s overtime budget; and eliminating a part-time position requested by the Parks and Recreation Dept.

The philosophy behind this budget is puzzling. Paying for extraordinary capital expenses like fire trucks and sidewalks through a small, annual operating budget like ours without raising taxes is very difficult. There’s just not a lot of money to spare. You end up making hard and, in my view, unnecessary choices, as this budget does. It chooses sidewalks and future fire trucks over providing needed help for our dedicated, hardworking staff and paying for competent, professional services. Those aren’t choices I’m willing to make.

Neither am I willing to part with most towns and cities in the state by charging our employees for health care. This budget takes the first step in ending that important benefit. We chose a better health insurance plan than employees have now, but it will cost about $60 more a month per employee. The 24 employees on the plan will be required to make up that difference. We’ll boost their salaries by that amount for one year but with no guarantee that the subsidy will continue.

Those on the board who favor this approach have noted that hardly anyone in the private sector – “the real world,” they like to call it – gets free health care these days. While there’s no disputing that, it’s equally true that in this world of local government, free health care is an industry standard. Most public employees could make more money working in that “real world.” Health and retirement benefits attempt to level the playing field.

In our previous discussions about the budget, the town manager provided us with a survey he conducted of health-care plans and costs in eight nearby cities and counties: Newport, Pine Knoll Shores, Atlantic Beach, Emerald Isle, River Bend, Snow Hill, Oriental and Onslow County. Swansboro’s current health-care plan costs us $520 a month per employee. That was the third-lowest on the list. Importantly, only Onslow County charges employees $25 a month if they opted for the more expensive of the two plans offered.

The commissioners’ new approach of requiring employees to pay a portion of their health insurance isn’t common in North Carolina. If we were in that “real world,” one could say we are at a competitive disadvantage. Recruiting new employees and retaining the ones we have could now be difficult.

And, finally, I’m very troubled by the process we used to get to Tuesday night’s vote. We have talked publicly about this budget for months, holding six or seven public meetings and workshops. The town manager, at the board’s request, devised two budgets: one with a tax increase and one without.

A couple of board members got their pencils out over a weekend in early May and began cutting money from one line item of the manager’s budgets and moving it to another.

The commissioners’ alternative budget, as it has been called, was first made public at our meeting on May 8. Mayor John Davis called me that morning informing me of the alternate budget. He had contacted the other commissioners as well. It was clear from the conversation that all had approved the numbers. I told Davis that I could not.

He visited our town manager, who had worked for months on the budget with his staff, later that day and briefed him extensively on the commissioners’ desires.

At the meeting that night, the board discussed the new numbers and directed the manager to use them to fashion the budget that will be the subject of Tuesday’s meeting.

I wonder why we wasted all that time for all those months publicly talking about a budget. Who knew that it could be quickly resolved by a couple of folks with a pencil over a weekend, followed by a few phone calls and emails? Live and learn.

The meeting Tuesday starts at 6 p.m. at Town Hall.

You can review the proposed budget here.

Time Is Running Out on Budget

The Swansboro Board of Commissioners will have a special meeting tomorrow night at Town Hall to discuss the town’s new budget. Now that the sale of the cigar shop is out of the way, maybe we can agree on a budget framework. Time is running short. 

The board had called the meeting several weeks ago to listen to public comments about the proposed sale, but the commissioners decided last week to cancel the sale and to use the meeting to discuss the budget. 

Selling the cigar shop was a distraction that merely complicated our budget discussions. Without the sale, the choice becomes simple: Either we raise taxes or we don’t. 

Our town manager has presented us with two workable, balanced budgets. One raises taxes four cents, bringing the tax rate to where it was in 2013 before a previous board cut it in an ill-advised, election-year maneuver that has cost the town almost a million dollars in lost tax revenue.  The additional money in that budget, about $180,000, will allow us to spend more on needed capital improvements, like sidewalks, and put money aside for big-ticket items, like fire trucks, that we know we’ll have to buy in the next five to seven years. 

The other proposed budget keeps the tax rate where it is now. It provides the same level of services to residents, pays for the two new policemen we added earlier this year and needed equipment for the fire and public works departments, provides our employees with a modest raise and maintains their health benefits. This budget, though, sets aside little money for sidewalks and no money for those big, future expenses. 

It merely kicks the can down the road. A tax increase is inevitable – we haven’t had one in a decade – if we want to maintain services, put aside money for needed, future expenses and provide for our employees. 

I’m going to suggest to the board that we kick the can for one more year and support the no-tax-increase budget. I’m not usually in favor of putting off tough decisions, but I don’t get the sense that a majority on the board would agree on what to put in the can if we were to pick it up. 

And there’s not a whole lot of time left to figure it out. The town manager must release to the public a budget framework in about two weeks. State law requires that a balanced budget be approved by June 30. 

My advice then is to maintain the status quo and commit to spending the rest of the year figuring out what our needs are, what they’ll cost and how we can raise the money. This will be a good year to do that. We’ll soon release the town’s new economic strategic plan and have started the process to update our state-required land use plan. Both look to the future. So should the board. We could commit to set aside real time at board meetings every couple of months to talk about the town’s future and how we’ll pay for it. 

The meeting starts at 6 p.m. It’s your money we’ll be talking about. You might as well come by and tell us how you think we should spend it.

 

Board Cancels Cigar Shop Meeting

In an otherwise uneventful meeting, the Swansboro Board of Commissioners last night surprised everyone in the room, including me, by canceling Monday’s public meeting on the controversial sale of town-owned property in the middle of downtown.

The item to cancel the proposed sale of the property at 106 S. Church Street, fondly known as the “cigar shop,” didn’t appear on the public agenda but had obviously been a topic of private discussion among some board members after the board voted unanimously a week ago to have the special meeting.

Before proceeding to the topics on the agenda, Mayor John Davis said the board would first handle an “administrative” item to cancel the meeting. There were no motions or seconds and no discussion about the reasons for the sudden change of heart. The board was “polled,” and we unanimously agreed to cancel the meeting on the cigar shop. We’ll still have a special meeting Monday night, but it will be about the new budget, now minus the cigar shop.

I can only guess as to why the board for the third consecutive year considered and then rejected a proposal to sell the property. Residents have consistently expressed their opposition to the sale. Dozens of people have written, called or approached me since the topic came up again a few weeks ago. No one was in favor of selling the property. I assume others on the board heard the same thing. The Board of Directors of the Swansboro Area Chamber of Commerce on May 2 unanimously passed a resolution opposing the sale. That probably did it.

I wasn’t in favor of selling the property for the reasons I’ve noted here previously, and I question the irregular way the board handled canceling the meeting. The topic should have been on the public agenda. I’m pleased, though, that this distracting and complicating issue is now out of the way, at least until next year if history is any guide.

Now, maybe we can move on and pass a budget in the next few weeks. I’ll post my thoughts about that as we get closer to Monday’s meeting.

Nothing much happened during the rest of the meeting. We approved a more user-friendly way our ordinances and charter are codified and now appear on the town website.  You can now search for subjects that appear in our charter and in all our ordinances.

We also discussed how meeting agendas are set. We have little control over what appears on most agendas. Ordinances and state law determine the timing for hearing permit applications, rezoning requests and the like. We can control what I’ll call the discretionary agenda items, such as discussions about future ordinances or policies. In the past, custom and tradition guided how those topics were chosen – usually a board member would bring up a topic at a meeting and the board would reach a consensus on whether to put it on a future agenda for further discussion. We asked our manager last night to come back with suggestions for setting a policy on how the discretionary portion of meeting agendas are determined.