By David Rogers. June 4, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Creative thinking was the order of the evening on Tuesday during the Blowing Rock Town Council’s public hearing and subsequent first work session on the 2019-2020 town budget. The almost $9.0 million in General Fund departmental expenditures presented by town staff included a recommended three-cent hike in property taxes, to 41 cents per $100 valuation.
COVER IMAGE: Newly appointed — and well-prepared — Town Manager Shane Fox explains a line item in the recommended budget to the Board of Commissioners and Mayor. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
It was obvious from the interaction between the Commissioners and Town Manager Shane Fox that the new executive hire (Fox was just sworn in on Monday) had done his homework. He was well-versed in not just the issues, but also some of the history behind the issues. Where something was new to him, he was quick to say he would have answers by the next budget work session on June 18th.
While the combined public hearing and work session lasted two hours and 48 minutes just to get through the General Fund budget sections, very little time was wasted and individual Council members appeared well-prepared. Commissioners Jim Steele, Virginia Powell, and Sue Sweeting were quick to question line items that stood out, if not challenge the need for specific levels of expense.
A sampling of discussion items:
- Employee compensation makes up a large portion of the operating budget (approximately 44%) and staff’s proposal for a three percent (3%) cost of living (COLA) increase came under considerable scrutiny by the Commissioners, as well a by local resident Tim Gupton. Sweeting advocated for a larger portion of pay increases to be merit-based according to a plan developed and administered by the town manager rather than automatically reflecting cost of living increases.
Gupton pointed out to the Council members that over the last five years the Town’s employee compensation, in aggregate, has increased 40%. “That rate is unsustainable,” Gupton asserted.
- Steele challenged the increased cost of street lighting, in the process learning that with the widening of U.S. 321 (Valley Blvd.), approximately 100 new coach lights were added. “By my calculation,” Steele said, “it is costing us $5,000 per light in utility costs.”
- Although the lights are actually owned by Blue Ridge Energy, Sweeting and Powell wondered whether they could be powered with solar panels given the technology improvements in recent years.
- As Fox progressed through the departmental budget requests and explained the Police Department’s need to replace at least two vehicles, Sweeting looked to interim police chief Aaron Miller and offered, “I’d like to see at least some of the new vehicles be hybrids.” Miller countered with, “All of the new Ford Interceptors are hybrids.”
- Powell wondered about all of the newly planted, but already dead trees that had been installed on Valley Blvd. by the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT), and who was bearing the cost of replacing them.
- In his prepared remarks during the public hearing, Gupton offered a slideshow presentation and, at the end, recommended that the Board of Commissioners reduce the proposed property tax hike from three cents to two cents; and defer the $100,000 plus requested by Parks & Recreation for playground equipment upgrades in Memorial Park OR dip into the General Fund’s reserves as the funding source. The general goal, Gupton suggested, should be to reduce the burden on taxpayers during the peak debt service period and “reduce the growth curve.”
Interim Public Works Director Matt Blackburn was asked to report on a new efficiency initiative being contemplated for implementation by his staff, to establish a Town-managed composting and mulching facility to take clippings and such rather than spend taxpayer money to dispose of the materials at the Watauga County landfill. “The compost and mulch,” Blackburn explained, “can be used by Parks & Recreation for landscaping, or even sold or given away to the public.”
No decisions were made during this first work session and public hearing. The special meeting was primarily to provide an introduction of the recommended budget to the Commissioners and public at large and begin tweaking it toward final adoption before the new fiscal year begins July 1st.
Town Council next meets next Tuesday for its regular monthly meeting on June 11th, then again for the final budget work session on June 18th. In preparation for the final meeting, Fox was asked to ascertain details on several budget items and he will have those answers in hand on the 18th.