By David Rogers. July 11, 2017. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Coming out of closed session back into open session as required by North Carolina statutes, Blowing Rock’s Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to end new Town Manager Ed Evans’ probationary period, gave him a five percent (5%) pay raise, and said they would re-evaluate his job performance on his one-year anniversary in six months.
All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Although only Blowing Rock News was in the audience and on hand for the new open session decision, it nonetheless seemed a ringing endorsement by Town Council of Evans’ performance during his first six months on the job.
The Council decision, though, regarding Evans was almost anti-climactic after a two and half hour regular open session played before a packed house, then a roughly 10-minute closed session to deliberate on the Evans-related personnel matter.
Automated Water Meters
From a time perspective, a late regular agenda item under New Business consumed almost an hour of the Commissioners’ attention and engendered the most audience interest and participation. Brad Smith of Boulder, Colorado-based Metron Farnier Smart Water Meters & Systems was on hand to explain the features and benefits of the new automated water meter infrastructure the Commissioners and Town staff currently recommend for installation by and for all property owners. Commissioner Jim Steele described the new system as a “win-win” for the Town and for the water consumer.
For the consumer, the system promises to facilitate an early detection of any leaks that a homeowner might have on their property, while the town significantly reduces its labor cost allocation for reading meters and gains better and more efficient control over the municipal water supply.
Noted Evans to the crowd packing the Council chambers during the first open session, “Not only does the resident or consumer not get charged for what is essentially wasted water, but the Town reduces the need to treat and deliver just that much less water into the system.”
The Commissioners unanimously voted to hold a public hearing on the automated water meter proposal on July 25th, 5:00 pm, at Town Hall.
Company executive David Barker of Mountaineer Marketing, Inc., best known as the owners of the Blowing Rock Market, must have felt he had hit the trifecta before the Town Council. Not only did the Commissioners approve his requested CUP amendments, but in the process granted a small waiver on his parking space requirement. The revised CUP allows Barker to address several problems related to both pedestrian and vehicular traffic at what has evolved as the de facto town “waystation,” he noted to the Commissioners. The owners of the Market are enclosing what is currently an outdoor patio, providing more interior retail space, removing the gas pump closest to the front entrance and converting much of the space into slightly elevated and landscaped outdoor seating, putting handicapped parking nearer the front door, adding one more parking space than currently permitted, and taking steps to make the two Main Street driveways ingress only and the Park Ave. access egress only.
“Right now we have people and vehicles going in six different directions, simultaneously,” Barker explained. “For the safety of our customers we need to do a better job of controlling (the flow of) traffic.”
Removal of the gas pump is also an important strategic step for Blowing Rock Market, which like many gasoline retailers with older pumps faces significant regulatory and costly implementation challenges in complying with federally mandated conversion to credit card “chip readers.”
Mastercard and Visa have pushed out the deadline for the conversion to October 2020, according to a December 1, 2016, report by SC Media, a conversion that Barker explained to Blowing Rock News would cost him roughly $40,000 for all of his current pumps. With gasoline sales the lowest profit margin product the Market sells, “We are unlikely to recover that capital investment in my lifetime through gasoline sales,” Barker said.
The silver lining is that the forced conversion prompted smart gasoline retailers like Barker & Co. to rethink their respective business models and their allocation of scarce resources, including their usage of space on the property. In the process, they address not just operating inefficiencies, but customer safety and convenience at the same time.
Completing The Trifecta
In an unrelated action, the Council unanimously affirmed the so-called “Brunch Bill” as it applies to Blowing Rock. Officially known as “Senate Bill-155,” the legislation was signed into law by Governor Roy Cooper on June 30, 2017, and “…authorizes towns and cities to adopt an ordinance to allow alcohol sales beginning at 10:00 am on Sundays…”
Previous statutes did not permit the sale of alcoholic beverages before noon on Sundays, so by adopting a local ordinance, the Commissioners are permitting licensed alcohol retailers like Blowing Rock Market, including restaurants and other retailers, to get a two-hour headstart on their sales day (in time for brunch service).
Appointed Board Term Limits
Two other public hearings got the attention of Town Council during the regular open session. The Commissioners unanimously passed an amendment to Town Code ordinances that potentially restrict members of appointed boards (specifically, the Planning Board, Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Board (BRAAC) and the Board of Adjustment) to only two consecutive terms of services.
Scanning the audience and making eye contact as he spoke, Commissioner Doug Matheson explained that without the possibility of imposing term limits there are many Blowing Rock residents who would like the opportunity to serve on these volunteer boards, but are prevented from serving as incumbent members get entrenched in their positions.
Cleaning Up BRAAC Language In Code
In the final public hearing, Planning Director Kevin Rothrock presented suggested amendments from current members of BRAAC aimed at “cleaning up” some of the Land Use Code language to make the wording consistent with current board functions and practices. The Council members unanimously approved these amendments.
Sunset Gateway Contract Extended
Also under New Business, the Commissioners unanimously passed a proposal to extend the contract with Destination By Design for the so-called Sunset Gateway project. At an additional cost of approximately $9,160, the design team will take the next steps, including more community outreach aimed at achieving consensus about the project, conduct meetings for both Planning Board and BRAAC input, and develop a website for facilitating better communication about the project for stakeholders.
The final item of New Business was a request by the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce to move the dates previously approved for the event, “Savor Blowing Rock,” from April 19-22, 2018, to May 3-6th. Chamber CEO Charles Hardin explained that the state’s making April “beer month” created many competing beer-related festivals around North Carolina and rendered many hoped for participating vendors unable to take part in the Blowing Rock event. A move to the first weekend in May, Hardin said, keeps the event effectively in the “shoulder” season but eliminates their having to compete with various beer-related festivals around the state for vendors.
The Commissioners unanimously approved the requested change in dates for 2018. Asked by Commissioner Sue Sweeting whether the Chamber wanted to change all three years approved in the previous Town Council action, Hardin reported, “Probably, but we’d like to do next year on the first weekend in May and then evaluate the change going forward.”
The Consent Agenda included ratifying decisions made at the Council’s Mid-Year Retreat related to changing back to a pooled insurance coverage with the North Carolina League of Municipalities, a step that Town Manager Evans reported will save a net $14,000 annually from what is currently budgeted.
The Consent Agenda also included two tax releases ($111.72 and $704.84), in aggregate covering tax years 2014, `2015 and 2016, due to clerical errors identified by Watauga County in assigning incorrect acreage to parcels owned by NC Assets, LLC. The North Carolina Secretary of State website identifies Sandra Glover of Boone as the registered agent of NC Assets, LLC.
Other Consent Agenda items included the Annual Tax Settlement Report and Order of Tax Collection. The report identified approximately 50 parcels where property taxes are owed, in aggregate amounting to $32,745.37. When asked by Commissioner Albert Yount what the Town’s success rate has been, historically, in collecting taxes owed, Finance Director Nicole Norman reported, “98.6%.”
Of note in the Manager’s Report:
- Sale of newsracks
- Receipt of $500 donation from Blowing Rock Garden Club
- Monday Night Concert Series
- Movies In The Park
- Virginia Tech Design Grant regarding the area behind the American Legion Hall
- Center line striping is progressing, with 36 roads and streets being done so far
- Accolades re: town landscaping and Town Hall garden
- Six new housing starts and the start of permitting for Chestnut Partners (old hospital site)
- Sharon Van Dyke’s 20 years of service
- Invoice from New River Power & Light has been identified as being incorrectly billing the town for $500 monthy
The last item, the invoice from New River Power & Light, provided a degree of consternation among members of the Board of Commissioners. Yount suggested that he recalls this issue being brought up previously. “It may go back to when Scott Hildebran was Town Manager,” Yount suggested. When asked by Commissioner Jim Steele how long this may have been going on, Evans replied, “At least five, but possibly six years.”
Evans further explained, “It relates to the water interconnect agreement with the Town of Boone and Appalachian State University. I questioned it because Blowing Rock has not used water from the interconnect and we got hold of people in Boone who admitted that the invoice is not really ours. I am at least happy that we will not be having to pay this bill going forward.”
Some quick math by the Commissioners and members of the audience suggested that at $500 per month for 12 months, Blowing Rock may have been incorrectly being invoiced by and paying New River Power & Light as much as $6,000 per year for possibly six years, or possibly be out as much as approximately $36,000.
There were no speakers from the floor nor departmental reports. With the regular open session adjourned, almost all in the audience went home. The Council members went into closed session for approximately 10-15 minutes before coming back into open session to make the aforementioned decisions relating to Evans’ job as town manager.