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.

Someone Is Watching

Brown water pours out of the silt bag. The pipe leading from the pump is attached to the bag at the upper right-hand corner.

Wetlands can be a real pain in the butt if you’re a developer trying to build something in them. They must be ditched and pumped dry and topped with tons of dirt. Despite your best efforts they get soggy again come the first good rain.

The developers of the Dollar Tree and Verizon stores on N.C. 24 here in Swansboro are finding out just how stubborn wetlands can be. They chose a site that is about half wetland. They’ve been pumping them for weeks, dumping the water in a storm ditch along Main Street Extension. When they started clearing the site and disturbing the soil a few weeks ago, the discharge turned the color of chocolate milk, which seemed to violate the state’s turbidity standards. Those rules prohibit visible off-site sediment from any land-disturbing activity.

That water ran through the ditch, went under the road, through the Ace Hardware property, then under N.C. 24 and eventually into Halls Creek. The creek is designated by the state as a shellfish-growing water body. It’s already considered polluted by stormwater runoff.

A sample of the water pouring out of the bag is dark brown Monday.

Sedimentation is one of the leading causes of water pollution. It leads to fish kills, clogged streams, reduced storage volume of reservoirs and added filtration costs for our municipal water supplies. The smaller soil particles remain suspended in the water. These suspended particles block out light filtering through the water, reducing photosynthesis and altering the ecology of our streams.

I took some pictures and a couple of samples of the water coming out of the discharge pipe and sent them to Holley Snider, an inspector with the N.C.  Division of Energy, Minerals and Land Resources. The division enforces the sediment standards. Snider told me that the pictures seemed to indicate a problem. She spoke with the developer, Chris Bailey of Jacksonville, and visited the site on a day when no pumping was going on. She suggested that Bailey place a big nylon bag at the end of the pipe to filter sediment out of the discharge.

Bailey complied. But I had my doubts. These silt bags don’t do a very good job at capturing the finer sediments. After a heavy downpour early yesterday morning, my fears were confirmed. Black water poured from the bloated sediment bag and down the ditch along Main Street extension.

This time I brought a turbidity tube with me. Turbidity is a measure of the cloudiness of water. The higher the turbidity, the harder it is to see through the water. Turbidity measurements are reported in nephelometric turbidity units (NTU) or Jackson turbidity units (JTU). Different units are used depending on which method is chosen to measure turbidity. The two units are roughly equivalent and can be used interchangeably for field purposes.

With the naked eye, an average person can begin to see turbidity levels starting at around 5 NTU and greater. Lakes that are considered relatively clear in the United States can have a turbidity up to 25 NTU. If water appears muddy, its turbidity has reached at least 100 NTU. At 2,000 NTU, water is completely opaque. Water bodies in North Carolina with NTU of more than 50 are in violation of water quality standards.

Keep those numbers in mind.

The discharge from the construction site, right, contrasts with the clearer runoff flowing down an unaffected side ditch.

The clear plastic tube is about two inches in diameter and about four feet tall. At the bottom is a black and white disk. You pour your sample into the tube until you can no longer see the disk from the top of the tube. A scale on the side gives you the NTU measurement.

I poured less than a half inch of the water coming out of the silt bag into the tube and the disk disappeared. That corresponded to NTU greater than 250, the limit of the tube’s measurements.

I also measured the runoff in a side ditch not affected by the discharge. It had a NTU of 30. Where the two streams met, the difference was stark.

I took more pictures and sent them to Snider. I suggested that pumping the wetlands be stopped until a way is found to keep mud out of our creeks. She sent my photos on to Bailey and to Gary Pope of Johnson Grading who is doing the site work along with this email:

“Gary, per our phone conversation, please provide me with an update of the conditions of the site in response to this email, a copy of the required report from last night’s rainfall event and any additional measures being taken to reduce/limit turbid water from leaving the site.  It may be necessary to cease and desist pumping water, including water thru the silt bag, if the water that is leaving the site would result in a violation of the State’s water quality standards.”

The pumping stopped Monday afternoon.

We in Swansboro passed a tough watershed plan last year that commits the town to reducing the flow of polluted stormwater runoff into our surrounding waters. We instituted an annual stormwater utility fee a couple of years ago. Every property owner in town now contributes to help fund ways to reduce flooding and the flow of water pollution.

Everyone must do their part, including those who choose to build in our town. They should know that someone is watching.

On Being a Queen Bee

Johnny Cash and John Lee Hooker worried about losing her. Grand Funk Railroad wanted to steal her away. Stevie Ray Vaughn liked the way she “grooved” her hips, but Sly and the Family Stone feared her “mean sting.”

In country music and heavy metal, in Memphis blues and Scottish ballads and Brooklyn rap, the queen bee has been celebrated as, well, the queen bee. She’s the hottest chick in town, the ruler of the roost, the top of the heap.

“She rocks me to my soul,” croons Taj Mahal.

His “Queen Bee,” by the way, is my favorite of these musical tributes. Here’s a cool video of Taj Mahal playing the song on a horse-drawn carriage winding through the streets of New Orleans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sjTEkhXgu_4#action=share.

I’m sorry to report, though, that the real queen bee lives a very different life from the one portrayed in popular song.

It’s been two weeks since my bees came. They’re getting along fine, doing what bees do: building honeycomb, collecting pollen and storing nectar. The queens in each of two colonies are also doing what they’re supposed to: laying eggs.

And that’s all they do.

The thousands and thousands of other female bees in the hives – except for a couple of hundred freeloading male drones, all are sisters – will spend various parts of their lives fulfilling different vital roles. They’ll nurse the young, clean the hive of debris and the dead, build comb, store nectar and pollen, make honey and guard the hive against enemies. When they mature and develop fully working stingers, the bees start the most glamorous part of their short lives as foragers, going out into the world to collect what the hive needs to survive. These are the bees you see in your garden moving from flower to flower. They’ll do that for a couple of weeks until they literally wear out their wings and die.

the Queen
The queen in the Tuscany hive is the big bee in the center with the red dot. She isn’t born that way. The company that supplied the bees marked her for easy detection.

Every bee has a chore in the highly organized world of the hive. The queen’s only job is to lay fertilized eggs. As many as 2,000 a day. Day after day for two to four years.

She knows nothing of the outside world. As a youngster, she ventured briefly outside the hive to mate. After connecting with as many as 20 drones and storing their sperm, she returned, likely never to leave again.

She can’t even digest her own food. Attendant bees do it for her and feed her. How sad is that?

Make no mistake about it, though, the queens are the most important bees in my hives. The colonies’ futures depend on them. All the other bees take their cues from the queens. Without them, my hives would falter and could collapse.

But would they? Unlike the queen bees of song, the queens in my hives aren’t really in control. If one of them was weak or diseased, the other bees would sense that from the pheromones the queen was releasing. These chemical substances secreted by bees’ exocrine glands trigger different behavioral or physiological responses by other bees in the hive. Think of them as a wireless communication system. Pheromones allow the bees to coordinate the complex activities of the hive. Almost everything they do is guided by these chemical signals.

If the queen’s pheromones are weak, the bees will respond. In the communistic society of the bee hive nothing matters except the survival of the colony. Not even, in the end, the queen. Sensing a failing queen, nurse bees make a new one by feeding several baby bees a steady diet of royal jelly. Also called “bee milk,” it looks like white snot. More than half of it is water, the rest is a combination of proteins and sugars. Special glands in the heads of the nurse bees secrete the stuff, which gets fed to babies, instead of the normal diet of pollen and honey, to make new queens.

The first to hatch will kill the other developing queens in their cells by stabbing them with her stinger. Then, she and the other bees will kill the old queen, and the colony will go on stronger than before.

Freakwater, an alternative country band from Chicago, puts it this way:

I’m gonna be the Queen Bee

And in the beautiful world I see

Way up in a hollow tree, perfect idolatry

Little bees on their knees

Sayin’ “Baby, you’re the Queen Bee”

As long as you keep laying eggs, day after day after day. Falter and you better watch your back because those bees on their knees will get up and turn on you.


Sunday Sermon: Live with Creation

I was walking Sawyer, our daughter’s sweet spaniel mix, on this blustery, cold Sunday morning. As is our wont, we ended up at our community boat ramp where we both like to sit awhile at the end of the dock to watch the river’s life go by. We’re usually rewarded with jumping mullet, diving terns and, at certain times of the year, the occasional pod of porpoises breaking the surface with the gentle whoosh of expelling air.

This morning, though, an adjoining property owner was busily and noisily at work in the marsh behind his house, hacking away at the grasses with his weed eater, cutting them down to the ground to conform with his manicured lawn.

Feeling charitable on this day of rest, I told Sawyer, there, my boy, is a man who truly knows not what he does.

salt marshBack during my time with N.C. Coastal Federation, I would field calls this time of year from waterfront property owners who wanted to know if they could cut down the marsh grasses bordering the water. My first question was always the same: Why? I’ve yet to hear a reasonable answer.

A variety of plants fringe the borders of our saltwater estuaries: Cordgrasses, black needle rush, sea lavender, spike grass. There, where the tide ebbs and flows each day, hundreds of kinds of invertebrates crawl through the muck. Fiddler crabs, hermit crabs, stone crabs and blue crabs join snails, mussels and worms looking for food and shelter. Fish and shrimp are there as well in search of food and a place to lay their eggs.

Egrets and herons stalk the high grasses to spear a meal. Willets nest in there, and a variety of songbirds flit through cordgrass and needlerush, filling the marsh with their melodious symphony.

Because of their importance to the health of our estuaries, these saltwater marsh grasses are protected by state law. Unfortunately, there’s nothing to prevent a guy from going out there on a Sunday morning on foot with a weed wacker or scythe to mow them down. Had he been using a lawn mower or tractor, he would have gotten a visit tomorrow from an enforcement official. Cutting ruts through the marsh is illegal.

I used to tell the people who called me that even if they don’t care about the birds and the fish and such, they should be worried about their waterfront homes. Numerous studies have confirmed the effectiveness of a healthy saltmarsh in preventing flood damage. In the largest laboratory experiment ever constructed to investigate this phenomenon, researchers at Cambridge University have shown that over 120 feet, the salt marsh reduced the height of large waves in deep water by 18 percent, making them an effective tool for reducing the risk of coastal erosion and flooding. The marsh plants alone accounted for 60 percent of that reduction, the study found.

Those people who called usually said they wanted to cut down the marsh grasses so that they could see water better, as if something that rarely grows taller than three feet obscures the view.

My advice was also always the same: Consider yourself fortunate to be able to live by the sea. You have a front-row seat to the majestic beauties of creation. Learn to appreciate  it, instead of wrestling with it unendingly to make it conform to your world. The birds will thank you and so will the fish. You’ll look like a genius when the next hurricane comes roaring by. I intend to tell my neighbor the same thing the next time I see him.