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.

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.

An Embarrassing Evening

The Board of Commissioners had another budget workshop Tuesday night. Three people showed up. Good thing. I would have hated to embarrass ourselves in front of a full house.

I have been on this board for almost three years now. I have covered hundreds of similar meetings as a reporter. Never have I witnessed an elected board display such public disdain for its staff. I don’t think it was intentional, but I was flabbergasted nonetheless and, yes, embarrassed.

Budget discussions can be difficult and contentious. Budgets are really policy statements, reflecting the desires of the ruling body. We have five commissioners and a mayor; some have competing interests and differing views on the role of government. So, discussions can get pointed and sometimes heated.

wordsThis budget is particularly difficult because the town is growing. Capital needs – trucks, machinery, sidewalks and the like – and the demands on a small staff are growing as well. But shortsighted changes forced on us by the state legislature are beginning to affect our bottom line. We can no longer expand our tax base by annexing people who live on our borders, take advantage of the many services the town provides but pay nothing for them. We can no longer charge traditional fees, like franchise taxes. We’re forced to rely more and more on property taxes as our major source of revenue. As a result, all towns are in a tough spot.

Add to all that the irresponsible action the Board of Commissioners took five years ago when it cut the tax rate four cents as a campaign tactic. Since then, it has cost the town almost a $1 million in much needed revenue.

None of that, though, excuses what happened the other night.

It all started with staff requests for additional personnel. They would like to add a permit officer and an assistant finance director. Our public works director currently fills the role of permit officer and building inspector. It’s an untenable situation. If he were to leave, we’d have to hire two people to replace him because we’re not likely to find someone with the necessary training and licenses for both jobs. An assistant would help our finance director meet the burdensome state and federal reporting requirements, as well as perform more mundane but time-consuming tasks.

We didn’t much discuss why new staff were needed. Instead, one board member read payroll numbers from a list of N.C. towns that he said were comparable to Swansboro. Emerald Isle and Wrightsville Beach were also on the list. While their permanent populations are about the same as Swansboro’s, that’s the only thing the towns have in common. I don’t know what other towns were on the list because it wasn’t shared.

It really makes no difference because no two towns are alike. All have different needs and are governed by people with different visions and desires. What they choose to pay their staffs shouldn’t be used as a definitive yardstick to measure our payroll.

The board member reported that Swansboro’s payroll was slightly above the median of these mystery towns. He wanted to know why. It was an impossible question for our manager to answer without knowing what towns we were talking about or their situations. But the message sent to staff was clear: We pay you too much.

Another board member noted that the number of employees has grown too quickly since 2013, ignoring the fact that was the year the Recreation Department started. I guess we should have a nice Rec Building and programs with no one to watch the kids or to unlock the doors. A third board member agreed that this growth was “unsustainable.” The message to staff was clear: There are too many of you.

Instead of adding employees, yet another board member told our finance director, maybe everyone needs to work more efficiently. The department heads sitting in the room that night routinely log 90-100 hours in two-week pay periods without the benefit of overtime. The message to staff was clear: Work harder.

Then it was my turn. You hire good people, I said, and then trust their judgment. When the finance director says she needs help, I can only assume that she’s not trying to pad her department, that she actually needs help. Forced to choose, I’ll hire the help she needs rather than buy another truck for Public Works or lay more unused sidewalks on Corbett Avenue.

I suspect that this assessment will surprise many on the board. All, I think, value the hard work our staff commits every day to the job of running our town. At least, the board members go out of their way to praise staff members at almost every meeting. I don’t think that praise is hollow.

As a writer and journalist for much of life, I also know this: Words matter. They can have powerful negative or positive effects on people, regardless of your intentions. They need to be chosen carefully, especially by elected officials when talking about the people who carry out their policies.

Careless words were used the other night that sent an unintended message. We meet to talk about the budget again on Tuesday.  Maybe we’ll do better.

It Was a Haul, but Rezoning Approved

Except for the time it took to get through three agenda items and a couple of presentations, there were no surprises at last night’s Board of Commissioners’ meeting.

We approved Keith Walsh’s request to rezone 22 acres on the corner of Main Street Extension and Swansboro Loop Road to allow for the construction of 35 single-family hones. The vote was 4-1 with Angela Clinton objecting.

Walsh agreed to ask that the property, which is now outside city limits, be annexed. He also pledged not to disturb the four acres of wetlands on the property. His plan is to divide the wetlands when the land is subdivided and include deed restrictions on the individual lots that would protect them. He said, though, that he’s willing to discuss keeping the wetlands in one tract and protecting them through a conservation easement. That’s something we’ll discuss when Walsh submits his subdivision plat for approval.

Stormwater runoff was also an issue. Walsh noted that his soil scientist found sandy soil on a portion of the tract that would allow the runoff to soak into the ground rather than be collected in a pond. Called “infiltration,” that type of treatment is much preferred over the convention pipe-and-pond systems. Walsh said he would explore that approach with the state permitting agency.

A couple of residents expressed concern about the loss of wildlife habitat and traffic of Swansboro Loop Road, which need to be re-paved. The road is maintained by the state, and a contract to repave about two miles, starting at Main Street Extension, was let earlier this year.

Thanks to all who showed up to speak their minds.

We also unanimously approved the annexation of the Walmart but tabled a decision on a change in park policy that would allow alcoholic beverages to be served at catered events in the Rec Center. The commissioners first wanted to see the specific rules that would cover such events before making a decision.

We had a few presentations at the beginning of the meeting, including one about an opiod-treatment program in Nashville, NC. It all took an inordinate three hours. Thanks to the five hardy souls who made to the bitter end. If we ever have four items on an agenda, they’ll have to bring their sleeping bags.

Rezoning, Annexation and Booze

The Board of Commissioners at its meeting tomorrow night will consider rezoning 22 acres at the corner of Swansboro Loop Road and Main Street Extension for a 35-home subdivision.

The commissioners will also decide whether to annex the Walmart property and whether alcohol could be served at events at our Rec Center.

The rezoning request was originally on our agenda for Jan. 23, but was withdrawn by the developer, Walsh Real Estate. At the time, the project included more than 40 houses and wasn’t consistent with our land-use plan.

The plan envisions the property, now zoned agricultural, to be low-density residential. While I could make a convincing argument that 35 houses on 22 acres isn’t “low-density,” our land-use plan does. It’s one of it’s many weaknesses that I hope we address when we amend the plan this year.

Not only has he cut the number of proposed houses, the developer has also agreed to avoid the four acres of wetlands on the site. I’ll ask him if he’s willing to permanently protect them with a conservation easement, but all we can do is ask.

The required traffic analysis predicts that the development when fully built out will generate about 335 vehicle trips a day, which doesn’t exceed the carrying capacity of the roads.

Walmart, as required by the 2015 legal settlement of the developers’ lawsuit against the town, is asking to be annexed. The voluntary request, according to the settlement, was timed to 30 days after the town issued its certificate of occupancy. By then, the developers didn’t own the property and won’t have to pay the extra tax. Funny how that worked.

The vote is likely to be unanimous.  The store, for all intents and purposes, is in town. The tract adjoins our corporate limits. Our cops and firefighters answer calls there. We might as well get paid for it.

While we should accept the reality, we shouldn’t forget the history that an unanimous vote will obscure. The project was the most divisive in the town’s history. It pitted neighbors against each other and residents against their government. Out-of-town developers strong-armed the town board to get their way. Walmart officials responded to residents’ pleas with silence.

Now that I said my piece I can hold my nose and welcome Walmart to town.

Alcohol is currently not allowed in any town parks. Our Parks and Recreation Department is asking for an exception to that policy to allow alcoholic beverages at catered events at the Rec. Center. There would be several conditions: The caterer must have the proper state permits from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission. The user must furnish proof of liquor liability insurance, and the town must be named as an additional insured on the insurance certificate. The user must observe all state ABC regulations, and all alcoholic beverages must be consumed inside the building.

I have several questions about all this. Has there been a great demand to allow alcohol at events at the Rec Center? Has the town lost business because of alcohol ban? How much? Will the rec department not hold kids’ events in the building when alcohol is being served?

If you have questions about this or any other item on the agenda, come by at 6 p.m. at Town Hall to pose them. Hope to see your there.

You can find the full agenda here.