DAY ONE: Little drama — until the end of the day

DAY ONE: Little drama — until the end of the day
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By David Rogers. January 20, 2019. ASHEVILLE, NC — Day One of the 2019 Blowing Rock Town Council “Retreat” was unremarkable — until the end when discussion became animated as the Board of Commissioners evaluated their currently adopted process for hiring a new full-time “permanent” town manager while considering alternatives.

Most in the Vanderbilt Room of Asheville’s Doubletree Inn at Biltmore Village acknowledged Commissioner Sue Sweeting as the sole proponent at an earlier meeting for contracting an executive search firm to help with the process, but each of the other four commissioners stuck by their decision to oversee the process themselves. Predictably, these board members were expressively defensive in the face of media and some public suggestions that employing a professional search firm would assist the Town Council in attracting high quality candidates, make sure the process adhered to the need for confidentiality, help wordsmith interview questions, and perform valuable vetting services of each candidate.

Much of the Council members’ defensive was driven by the fact that so far they had received 35 applications for the job. While one can assume that each candidate applying is serious in his or her interest, there is no way for anyone outside of the Council members and top-level members of Town staff to know how many, if any, of those 35 have the necessary basic qualifications. As of this writing, according to interim Town Manager Jim Freeman, no vetting or background checks of the applicants had been conducted.

Sub-committee chairman Commissioner Doug Matheson asked each member to take a position as to whether they wanted to continue with the internal process, hire a search firm, or ask one or more area residents familiar with human resources or executive hiring practices to have input. All except Sweeting expressed a desire to continue with the process they had undertaken. Sweeting reiterated her preference for hiring a search firm, while Commissioner Albert Yount was extremely vocal, even adamant about bringing in outsiders to do their job. Since the final responsibility remains with the search firm, Yount declared at one point, “If I am going to get the blame, I want the fame.”

A summary of other topics on Sunday afternoon:

  • Finance Director Nicole Norman presented mid-year (six month) financial reports on the fiscal year budgetary overview and projections; provided updates on the Town’s debt obligations and the status of different bond sales and the allocation of those funds in various stages of the Community Improvement Bonds’ financing approved by voters in the 2014 election; discussed where the town is in soliciting requests for proposals to replace the vacant Town Auditor position as Misty Watson, CPA, has taken a full-time job with Watauga County; and briefly discussed selected revenue enhancements. Key points:
    • Norman admitted that her budgetary projections were very conservative, but it looked like the Town finances were in very good shape. At one point she reported that collection of property taxes (which represents approximately 60% of town revenue) far exceeded previous year collection rates.
    • The selected revenue enhancement discussion centered around whether or not the Town should be paying the approximately two percent (2%) of receipts paid by credit cards, or whether those costs should be passed on to those who use credit cards to make payments. While it may not be a significant amount of money for small purchases such as at the swimming pool concession stand, where property owners use credit or debit cards to pay property taxes the card processing fees can become significant. For example, where a tax bill is $3,000, the amount received by the town is deducted by approximately $60 (2%). Assuming that 100 residents paid an average of $3,000 in property taxes by credit card, then in aggregate it is costing the Town $6,000. While Mayor Charlie Sellers and Commissioner Jim Steele seemed to accept the credit card fees as “…the cost of doing business…”, Commissioner Virginia Powell replied, “We are offering the ability to pay by credit card as a service, but it should not be penalizing the Town for property owners to use that service.” Freeman offered that there are software applications that automatically incorporate the fee into the amount billed and paid by the customer and that one of those solutions should be evaluated and considered.
      • Editor’s Note: Our experience is that many credit card companies have a “maximum fee” of X%, not to exceed a fixed amount (i.e. $5 or $10)
    • Director Norman reported that another potential revenue enhancement consideration was reconsideration of the Automated Water Meter solution first considered in 2017. There was general agreement to review it, but that other vendors should be considered and vetted.
  • The Commissioners made cursory observations and asked questions about various candidates for open volunteer board appointments. Some of the applicants for Planning Board, Board of Adjustment, ABC Board, Tourism Development Authority, and Blowing Rock Appearance Advisory Commission were unknown to some or all of the sitting Town Council members. There was some discussion about revisiting the constitution of the TDA board, and questions about asking a couple of the candidates to consider other appointments than the ones for which they applied.
  • The Council members briefly discussed the Public Art Policy, and seemed to reach a consensus that the draft submitted by BRAAC should be adopted.

The Sunday afternoon session concluded with the aforementioned discussion about  the Town Manager hiring process.

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