By David Rogers. June 13, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — After listening to Town Manager Ed Evans defend the proposed 2017-18 town budget to a packed town hall council chamber and one impassioned plea to reconsider from resident George Wilcox, Blowing Rock’s Board of Commissioners unanimously passed the measure, which included a three-cent hike in property taxes paid to the Town by owners of both residential and commercial properties.
All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Wilcox’ statement included pointing out the magnitude of the increase, especially considering that the Watauga County Board of Commissioners last week passed a 4-cent increase of their own.
“When voters passed the 2014 bond referendum for infrastructure improvements to streets, water, sewer and parks and recreation,” Wilcox pointed out, “we did so without the knowledge that the County was going to raise taxes, too.”
There is no fluff.
Wilcox’s concluding suggestions that the Blowing Rock commissioners delay some of the projects to be funded by the bonds and to slow down taking on Phase 2 of the debt so they wouldn’t have to raise taxes so fast, for the most part fell on deaf ears.
After admitting that he went into the budget workshops expecting to resist the full property tax increase proposed by the town manager, Commissioner Albert Yount commended Finance Director Nicole Norman and the town manager for their work on the budget saying, “This is the tightest budget I have seen in my time here. There is no fluff…Our town is the prettiest it has ever been. The business of this town is tourism…I can’t go backwards (with a decision that would impact) our number one industry.”
Yount reminded the audience that all members of the Board of Commissioners pay property taxes so are experiencing the same pain as everyone else. He also pointed out that as a result of the Memorandum of Understanding signed by a previous board of commissioners that included none of the current sitting elected officials, the Town of Blowing Rock is obligated to pay for all or almost all of the landscaping and maintenance along the path of the widened U.S. 321, “…so there will be increased costs there.”
The top vote-getter among candidates for commissioner in the last election, Yount continued his explanation by pointing out that the County Commissioners had recently forced a change in the sales tax distribution that would reduce Blowing Rock’s share by an estimated $106,000, further strengthening the argument for a tax rate increase by the Town. “If we hadn’t lost that, we’d pretty well be sitting in the cat bird’s seat,” he observed.
We must prioritize things for what is needed, not just wanted.
Turning to the news reporters in the room, Yount added, “And I want to go on record as saying that I am not critical of the County Commissioners for their property tax increase nor for their change in the sales tax distribution. I am not in their shoes and certainly they are not here to defend themselves.”
The other commissioners took turns also complimenting the Town staff in preparing the budget.
Looking squarely in the eyes of the audience, Commissioner Jim Steele noted, “I want everybody to understand that if we pass this budget tonight, the budget has some things in it that we absolutely do not have to do (so don’t have) to spend. We don’t have to spend all the money if we don’t want to. That is important to understand. We’ll be looking at all those things and we will be listening to you all. We want to prioritize things for what is needed, not just wanted.”
Steele added, “We need to look at everything and ask ourselves, ‘Should we be doing this, now?’ What was done in the past may not be appropriate for now, because things change…I will tell you it is tough to take away something once you have given it. There is an uproar when you take away. But a lot of us are prepared to make those decisions if you, the people, are adamant, strong enough, and concerned enough. We can make those decisions.”
As an example of expenses that don’t pay for themselves, Steele explained that the July 4th parade costs the town between $22-$23,000 each year. “It does not pay for itself. It comes right out of the general fund. There are a lot of things that we are doing in Parks & Recreation where the income and the expenses are in concert with one another. It doesn’t cost us a lot.
It doesn’t pay for itself. Should we keep paying for it?
“So when we go through these things,” Steele concluded, “don’t think that his is just tax and spend because it isn’t that. All of us care a lot about this town and how we spend the money because it is yours, not just ours.”
Commissioner Doug Matheson offered that a major consideration for the tax increase included the pay increases voted on by the Board a few years ago after a study determined that the town’s employees were grossly underpaid compared to peer towns in the area. “We are finally catching up with the fourth and final year this year,” Matheson noted. “It was kind of embarrassing when we got this study back about what our employees are making compared to other towns around us.”
Commissioners Sue Sweeting and Ray Pickett echoed the others’ viewpoints, with Pickett recounting how much costs have gone up not just for the town, but for his business operations, too, from health insurance to the tires he puts on his vehicles.
After finally approving the budget an hour and 15 minutes later, the Council members heard from Teresa Buckwalter of Destination By Design regarding the Gateway and Sunset Dr. streetscape projects. She reported on the feedback received from both the stakeholders’ drop-in session, as well as the public forum, listing the primary items of interest. The report required no action by the Board.
Under New Business, the Commissioners heard a report from Dr. Scott Elliott, Superintendent of Schools for Watauga County Schools, regarding planned WCS work to be done at Blowing Rock School in the very near future. Elliott described the disruption that might occur and for how long. He noted that part of the project is to prepare the school for hosting a pre-Kindergarten program again. That part of the project involves two classrooms on the Sunset Drive side that had been taken out of commission because of flooding. Similarly, Elliott pointed out that additional work is required in the walkway alongside the auditorium, because of flooding issues inside the auditorium during heavier rains.
Doug Chapman presented artist renderings providing a certain amount of detail for the planned sidewalk from Main Street to Bass Lake, including a new intersection configuration at Green Street, new crosswalks, the loss of parking spaces alongside Speckled Trout, the start of bike lanes, and other details.
The Board unanimously passed a “Resolution of Support” for the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation.
Under the Manager’s Report, Town Manager Evans listed recent accomplishments:
- Local areas where the roads had been paved
- Thank-you to the Bridge Club for its donations for new flooring in the Blowing Rock Clubhouse (formerly the Ruritan Building)
- Noted the many hanging flower baskets and planters in town
- Reported about the “clean-up week” by Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Committee May 15-19
- Noted that several town employees had performed work in areas they don’t normally work, such as planting flowers and other projects
- Acknowledged the ditch work and clean-up by the NCDOT on Main Street between Chetola and Hill Street
- Noted that the chemical feed room repairs had been completed at the water plant.
The final agenda item before adjournment was “Speakers From The Floor” and the Council heard from Lorry Mulhern, general manager, and Steve Irace, owner, of the Green Park Inn. Both spoke passionately about the need to get the speed on U.S. 321/Valley Blvd. under control with more and better signage, as well as more rigorous enforcement. Mulhern shared that the hotel had to give refunds over the weekend to overnight lodgers because of the noise on the highway. They noted that with the opening of the four lanes all the way to Green Hill Rd. now, that it has become a raceway, increasing the noise on the highway as well as becoming a safety hazard.