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.

Finances, Permits and a Pothole

The Board of Commissioners, meeting last night at the old meeting hall while our current room undergoes renovations, got great news about the town’s financial health.

We also approved permits for a barbecue restaurant on Corbett Avenue and an assisted-living facility on Swansboro Loop Road.

The board hit a rocky spot though when it appointed members to a steering committee that will help us fashion the much-needed update to our state-mandated land-use plan. To select nominees for this very important committee, we used a process that I thought was rushed, lacked transparency and required more open, thoughtful deliberation from the entire board. For those reasons, I tried to delay consideration of the committee and, failing at that, was one of two commissioners to vote against the list of nominees.

Auditor Gregory Redmon, a CPA from Tarboro, gave our comprehensive financial report for FY 2016-17 glowing reviews. Some of the highlights Redmon noted:

  • The town’s assets exceed its liabilities and other expenses by more than $7 million. That so-called “net position” increased by more that $617,000 last year alone because of our ability to increase capital assets and reduce liabilities.
  • At the close of the fiscal year, the town’s fund balances, essentially our savings accounts, stood at more than $2.6 million, an increase of more than $931,000 since the previous year. About 65 percent of that amount, or $1.7 million, is unassigned to pay future expense and thus available for spending at the board’s discretion. That unassigned fund balance amounted to about 53 percent of total our total expenses. The state requires cities and counties have an unassigned fund balance of 8 percent, or about a month of expenses. Most towns Swansboro’s size have fund balances of about 40 percent.
  • The town’s debt increased by about $800,00 during the fiscal year. That money was spent on installment purchases and financing for equipment, vehicles, a new fire truck and the addition of a sleeping quarters for fire fighters.
  • The town received a Certificate of Achievement for Excellence in Financial Reporting for the 21st consecutive year.

We should all be very pleased. Much of the credit goes to our staff, led by Manager Scott Chase and Finance Director Sonia Johnson. They have worked hard to cut expenses and stretch our tax dollars. The previous Board of Commissioners and mayor also took seriously its obligations to spend our tax dollars wisely.

The commissioners last night approved the special-use permit for Moore’s Chicken and Barbecue Restaurant on the corner of Corbett and Hammocks Beach Road. The permit hearing was tabled at our last meeting at the request of the developer, Baldwin Design Consultants of Greenville. There’s no reason to rehash all the project details here. You can find them in previous posts below. Baldwin did include an important amendment to its plans by including internal road access from adjacent, undeveloped properties. That should alleviate some of the traffic problems on Hammocks Beach when those properties are developed.

We also approved a special-use permit for Swansboro House, an 80-bed assisted-living facility on about 23 acres on the Loop Road across from the baseball fields. The commissioners had approved this project last year, but the developer, Onslow Propco Holdings LLC, reduced the building’s footprint by about 5,000 square feet to about 38,000 and changed the façade. Those changes required the developer to return to the board for a new permit.

The developers committed to avoid the half acre or so of wetlands on the site and to incorporate innovative methods to control stormwater.

The land-use plan provides the policy foundation for the town’s development ordinances, such as its zoning codes.

The project didn’t raise any serious concerns among the commissioners and was approved unanimously.

It saddened me deeply that the selection of the steering committee to devise our new land-use plan turned contentious. I generally believe that the appointment of these volunteer committees should be unanimous, but I was so disturbed by the process used to select the committee that I decided to make an exception in this case.

The committee will be the most important one we appoint in my time on the board. It may work as long as a year fashioning our new land-use plan, which is the community’s blueprint for future growth and its policy foundation for our development ordinances. The task is important enough that the board should have carved out serious time to discuss the committee’s mission and composition. We had time. The committee won’t start working until May at the earliest.

At our meeting on Feb. 13, we directed Mayor John Davis to work with our manager to compile a list of nominees from recommendations submitted by board members and others. I assumed that the board would discuss the list in an open meeting and begin culling it down into a workable committee. Instead a couple of weeks later, we were emailed the names of 20 people who would serve on the committee. That list was amended twice with no explanation why people were added or deleted.

Though I talked to the mayor several times after original list was distributed, there was never an open discussion among board members about the committee’s composition or qualifications.

Then, it was rushed onto the agenda last night. After failing to persuade enough commissioners to pull the appointments from the agenda to give us time for serious deliberations, I felt I had no choice but to vote against the nominees. Commissioner Roy Herrick joined me.

To those on the committee, please understand that my vote wasn’t personally directed at any of you. I know most people on the committee and nominated a couple of them. They are good people who care about Swansboro and will, I’m sure, work hard to fashion a good plan. I look forward to joining them.

I objected to a rushed process that took place mostly in the shadows.

Leftovers: Moore’s BBQ

At the applicant’s request, the Board of Commissioners last night tabled a special-use permit for a barbecue restaurant at the intersection of Corbett Avenue and Hammocks Beach Road.

We’ll take it up again at our next meeting on Feb. 27.

In the other major agenda item, the board unanimously approved a permit for a new commercial building downtown. Edward Venters plans to build a single story, 1,536-square-foot brick addition to the old Harry Moore Store at 108 Front Street. This is the empty lot next to the Salt Marsh Cottage. The building is in the town’s historic district. The Swansboro Historic Properties Commission had approved the design for the new building.

After completing much of the hearing for the Moore’s Chicken and Barbecue Restaurant, the applicant, Baldwin Design Consultants of Greenville, asked the commissioners to delay the vote to allow Commissioner Pat Turner an opportunity to consider the permit. Turner was absent last night for medical reasons. A tie vote among the remaining four commissioners would have been a denial of the permit. According to our ordinance, the mayor couldn’t have voted to break a tie in this instance. We unanimously agreed to the request.

All of the commissioners last night expressed fears about the volume of traffic that the restaurant and other development spawned by Walmart will generate at Corbett and Hammocks Beach. Baldwin’s traffic engineer testified that the improvements recommended in his study will meet the traffic requirements of our ordinances. The traffic study recommends allowing only eastbound traffic to enter the restaurant parking lot from Corbett Avenue. Those traveling west on Corbett would have to turn left on Hammocks Beach and enter the parking lot on a driveway there. Everyone leaving the restaurant would do so on Hammocks Beach. To minimize long lines of cars waiting to make left-hand turns at Hammocks Beach, the study recommends making the current right-hand lane into a dual turn lane.

Importantly, our traffic engineer concurred with those recommendations.

While this is a Band-Aid approach to the larger problem, denying the permit now invites a lawsuit. These special-use permits require quasi-judicial hearings. We can only consider evidence presented during the hearings. When our own engineer testifies that the applicant’s approach will satisfy our ordinance, we have little left to base a denial on traffic issues.

The best we might be able to do at this point is push for the needed improvements at that intersection. The town is meeting today with the Walmart developers and DOT to approve the plat, pictured here, for the long-discussed Norris Road realignment with the Walmart entrance. Everyone agrees this addition is needed to safely move traffic in and out of Walmart. Our engineer said last night it will relieve 50 percent of the traffic pressure on Hammocks Beach, and our manager said he’s almost certain it will be built in the next 12 months.

Charles Rawls, who owns all property on west side of Hammocks Beach near the Moore’s lot, committed last night to internally connect all his properties on that side of Hammocks Beach by building an access road from Walmart’s existing driveway. If Walmart agrees, that road will eliminate the need for future driveways on the road when those lots are developed.

Finally, we need to make adding another turn lane on Hammocks Beach a drop-dead condition when the old ABC store across the street property is redeveloped.

BBQ on the Menu Next

The Board of Commissioners will consider permits for a barbecue restaurant on Corbett Avenue and a new commercial building on Front Street when it meets tonight at Town Hall.

Baldwin Design Consultants of Greenville is asking for a special-use permit to build a Moore’s Chicken and Barbecue Restaurant on about 1.3 acres on the corner of Corbett and Hammocks Beach Road. The lot, owned by Charles and Mary Rawls and Brenda Stanley, is the former site of Tom and Joe’s Sports Center.

This is the first of several commercial developments we can expect to see near that intersection now that Walmart is open. The Walmart store adjoins this lot.

Traffic is the major issue here. Under the state’s grading system, the intersection gets a middling “C” during peak traffic on weekday afternoons when this and other nearby developments are completed later this year, according to the applicant’s traffic analysis. It falls to a D on Sundays. To maintain those levels, the traffic study recommends allowing only eastbound traffic to enter the parking lot from Corbett Avenue. Those traveling west on Corbett would have to turn left on Hammocks Beach and enter the parking lot on a driveway there. Everyone leaving the restaurant would do so on Hammocks Beach.

Walmart customers who want to go west on Corbett will also be waiting at that intersection. As will those who live in subdivisions, including two new ones yet to be built, farther up the road. The intersection will also bear the traffic from the redeveloped ABC store site across from Moore’s and from new commercial developments that will likely be built on lots adjoining Moore’s that the Rawls’ also own.

To handle all that and avoid long lines of cars waiting to make left-hand turns at Hammocks Beach, the applicant’s traffic engineers recommend making the current right-hand lane into a dual turn lane. That would mean the two lanes become left-hand turn lanes as soon as the first car in the right-hand lane wants to go left.

Repainting the arrows at the intersection seems to be a band-aid approach to what’s shaping up to be major traffic snarl.

We visit our daughter often in Durham. Growth during the last decade has transformed the old tobacco town. Where corn and soybeans grew just a few years ago, businesses of all kinds have sprouted. As I crawl through bumper-to-bumper traffic, I often wonder who the moron was who allowed this to happen. I’m now in danger of being that moron.

Instead of attempting to deal piecemeal with the traffic that each succeeding development will spawn, we need to take a more holistic approach. So, some questions we should ask tonight:

How likely is Walmart to realign its’s Corbett Avenue entrance with Norris Road? This has been discussed for months and is considered the safest way to handle traffic entering and exiting the store and school traffic using Norris. Now, anyone wanting to go left on Corbett from Walmart is forced to make a U-turn at the Hammocks Beach intersection or exit onto Hammocks Beach and risk long lines at the light. A lighted intersection at Norris that would allow traffic to safely enter Corbett in either direction would relieve much of the pressure on Hammocks Beach.

Can the state Department of Transportation, which owns Hammocks and Corbett, widen the Hammocks intersection to include two dedicated left-hand turn lanes? It owns the right-of-way on either side of the road.

Finally, are the property owners willing to build an access road from the existing Walmart driveway on Hammocks Beach to Moore’s? They also own the land in between the two that will very likely be developed. That road would provide access to those developments as well and eliminate the need for multiple driveways on Hammocks.

Edward Venters is asking for a special-use permit to build a single story, 1,536-square-foot brick addition to the old Harry Moore Store at 108 Front Street. This is the empty lot next to the Salt Marsh Cottage. The proposal is in the town’s historic district. The Swansboro Historic Properties Commission has approved the design for the new commercial building.

You can find the full agenda here: http://swansboro-nc.org/…/BOC_2.13.18_Agenda_Packet_Revised….

The Moore’s traffic study is here: http://swansboro-nc.org/…/…/uploads/Moores_BBQ_Final_TIA.pdf