Home Government Blowing Rock EDITORIAL REPORT: Another Town Council circus at city hall

EDITORIAL REPORT: Another Town Council circus at city hall

Commissioner Sue Sweeting insisted and persisted…

By David Rogers. October 8, 2019. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Blowing Rock Board of Commissioners started out promising enough, but soon proved yet another instance of the members forgetting they are a policy-making board, not a micro-managing operator of municipal affairs.

COVER IMAGE: Suzanne Barker, event chairman for the 22nd annual Winterfest to be hosted by the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce in late January, explains her committee’s working with members of Town staff to craft event staging and logistics solutions. All photographic images by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News

Wishful Thinking

On the surface, it seemed to be an extremely light agenda. Earlier in the afternoon, one Council member was even optimistic in saying to Blowing Rock News, “We may have it all done in 20 minutes or so.” (speaking about the predicted length of the then upcoming Council meeting)

Blowing Rock Police Chief Aaron Miller, left, presents a commendation to Officer Lance Dotson for his off-duty service in helping a driver from a burning vehicle on Poplar Grove Rd. earlier in the summer.

And that is much closer to what it SHOULD have been. Even with one of the potentially more controversial items withdrawn for a future meeting, Blowing Rock’s commissioners still found a way to torture/entertain (pick one) those citizens choosing to attend.

In short, the Blowing Rock Town Council meeting for October devolved into a “Winterfest committee meeting” of which the event’s hosting organization, the Blowing Rock Chamber of Commerce, had little or no control. There is no other way to describe it than to say it was the sort of municipal circus we have come to expect from this board.

It must be noted that the Chamber of Commerce was blameless in this fiasco. Their subject application to host Winterfest depicted an event similar to last year’s highly successful festival (that had been approved by Council, as it had been for 21 previous years). There were, however, tweaks by the event committee to incorporate suggestions and feedback from the 2018 version of the event, tweaks fashioned to improve traffic flow, participant enjoyment, and alcoholic beverage consumption control).

The application is pretty straightforward. On Saturday, January 25, 2020, the Chamber requests closing Park Ave. between Main Street and Wallingford Street for some of the Winterfest events, including a dog keg pull, a band, and a beer garden.

About the only thing missing was popcorn being sold in the lobby — and a draft beer concession for anyone whose silent chuckling and head-shaking had worked up a thirst.

In the packet available to Town Council members, media, and anyone else reviewing the discussion items for the meeting (available on the Town website, CLICK HERE), the Town-required application document was completely filled out by the Chamber organizers. There were descriptions and color diagrams of the proposed layout. There is even a release and indemnity agreement signed by the event chair, Suzanne Barker, and the application itself was signed by three executive members of the Chamber board: Billy Chick, Ben Powell, and Jim McDowell, all local businessmen.

Even more importantly, the Chamber of Commerce organizing committee had worked closely with Town staff, including the Blowing Rock Police Chief Aaron Miller and Parks & Recreation Director Jennifer Brown to work out all of the details.

Per the memorandum requesting Council action, Parks & Rec Director Brown explains, “The dog keg pulls, a band and the beer garden would be in this area. This will allow them to have more control over the beer garden and the crowd would be spread out instead of cramming everyone in the American Legion parking lot.”

What could possibly go wrong in the 22nd year of applying for this event?

Commissioner Sue Sweeting objected to the beer garden part of Winterfest being staged in the parking lot at the front of the Police Station.

And that was what kicked off the needless, Barnum & Bailey-esque portion of the evening. Sweeting and then the other Commissioners launched into outbursts of speculation as to how and where else the beer garden might be hosted or defended the police station parking lot location. Even after Police Chief Aaron Miller stated that it was his idea to put the beer garden in front of the police station, pointing out that it actually might be better controlled by his officers in that location, Sweeting persisted.

Parks & Rec Director Jennifer Brown presented the Winterfest request for Town Council approval

Whether or not her objection had merit, the public Town Council meeting was not the place to micro-manage a third-party organization’s event. Rather than get into an estimated 40+ minute discussion about the merits of alternative locations, Sweeting, another commissioner, the mayor, or even the town manager could have said, “There may be concerns about a beer garden in this location. Can you come back to us with a more detailed justification and possibly some alternative configurations?”

Instead, in the micro-management style that has become Sweeting’s trademark, she advanced a location idea (the distant Davant Field parking lot) that would have likely doomed the beer garden to failure and kept persisting, even arguing, in response to Town staff and Chamber committee explanations.

The mess only ground to a halt when Commissioner Jim Steele finally sensed that the discussion was going nowhere and would not be resolved by this group, at least before midnight.

Kudos to Steele for recognizing the looks of incredulity and frustration (as well as amusement) on a large number of faces in the Council chamber’s audience — and then bringing the discussion to a head, suggesting that a decision be deferred until the Chamber committee has an opportunity to consider alternatives and make any revisions known at a future called special meeting of the Council.

As for this evening of municipal “entertainment”, the only thing missing was popcorn for sale in the lobby — and maybe a draft beer concession out there, too, for any whose silent chuckling and head-shaking had worked up a thirst.

As one outside observer noted to Blowing Rock News after the open session of the Town Council meeting, “At some point and at some level, the Board of Commissioners needs to trust that the professional Town staff, including the Town Manager that they hired, knows what they are doing.”

OTHER BUSINESS

Other than the Winterfest business, the meeting started crisply enough, including approval of the agenda with the withdrawal of a Chamber of Commerce presentation for a revisited Sunset Drive gateway proposal. The early part also included presentations by Police Chief Miller to officers involved in life-saving situations of late, all of whom received standing ovations from an appreciative audience.

Saving Money In-House

Public Works Director Matt Blackburn reported on the completion of a water line completion performed in-house by his department rather than contracted out. The cost for materials, he stated, was an estimated $3,000, whereas having a contractor complete the work would have been closer to $20,000.

U.S. 321 Speeding and Noise

Resident Bob Greene asked the Town to work with DOT to reduce the southbound speed limit on U.S. 321 to address the truck-related noise created when they brake to make the curves below Gideon Ridge.

Among the Public Comments, resident Bob Greene reported that the highway noise on U.S. 321 below his neighborhood in Gideon Ridge was excessive because of the trucks going too fast (he estimated 40-50 mph) on the stretch from about The Ridgeline restaurant to below the Green Park Inn, then having to use their J-brakes to slow down to safely negotiate the series of hairpin curves. He noted that on foggy days, when the trucks are already going slow as they approach the curves, the noise is greatly diminished, but on clear days it is a real problem. He asked that the Town work with the NCDOT to lower the truck speed limit through that section to 20 mph all of the time.

Town Manager Shane Fox, center, asks App State MPA candidate Dylan Powell, left, about his BRPD community survey while Mayor Charlie Sellers looks on.

Community Survey about BRPD

There was also a report from Appalachian State graduate student in public administration, Dylan Powell, who recently completed a community survey focused on the public’s perceptions of the Blowing Rock Police Department. Powell shared that he and Chief Miller had set a goal hoping for 200 respondents, but received well over 400. Selected conclusions of the study include:

  • 96% of the community agrees or strongly agrees that the BRPD is professional, comforting, and prompt
  • 86% of respondents in Downtown have interacted with a BRPD employee
  • Respondents that have interacted with the BRPD in the past two years had a more favorable view of the BRPD and also rated problems in section four of the survey with greater importance
  • The problems in section four were ranked, biggest to least:
    • Parking Violations
    • Traffic Safety
    • Drug/Alcohol Abuse
    • Property Crime
    • Violent Crime
  • Permanent residents had a (marginally) less favorable view of the BRPD, were more likely to have interacted with BRPD, and perceived section four’s topics as more major. Seasonal residents had an inverse opinion
  • The topics of concern in respondent comments were, in order of prevalence:
    • Traffic-related
    • Parking/tickets
    • Dispatch
    • Violations of the noise ordinance

Financial Report Notes

During the Financial Report section of the meeting, Finance Director Nicole Norman reported that as of September 30th the Town was 25% into the 2019-2020 fiscal year and that $770,083, or 17% of the budget in property tax billing. She stated that this is approximately 13% below year-ago collections. She added that utility collections were 9% above year-ago levels and water and sewer collections were 4% above a year ago.

Norman noted that overall expenditures for the General Fund are at 21% of budget (3% above last year at this time) and 24% of budget for the Water/Sewer fund (10% below last year at this time).

She further noted that her department was working with the town auditors, Martin Starnes & Associates, toward completion of a draft audit of 2018-19, which should be completed in nearby weeks.

Of the bond issue previously approved by Town Council, Norman reported that $6,936,250 had been issued to date, with $6,612,229 spent, mostly in Issue I and Issue II in Transportation, Parks, Water, and Sewer expenditures. $6,063,759 of the bonds remains to be issued as of September 16th.

The Consent Agenda included:

  • Resolutions relating to the voluntary satellite annexation of Natalie Bovino’s 0.826-acre property in the ETJ along U.S. 321 South, just outside of the Town limits, for purposes of connecting to the Town’s sewer utilities
  • Tax relief to Samaritan’s Purse for a parcel whose ownership records had not been updated by Watauga County, resulting in incorrect property tax billing

 

2 COMMENTS

  1. See, I’d rather the Council had spent 40 minutes analyzing why in h#LL Samaritan’s Purse deserves any more tax breaks than it already gets? This article does not say how big a parcel the records had not been “updated” by the County, or why this non-profit that already owns a nice big chunk of un-taxed real estate in our town/County, gets a complete pass on the consent agenda. I find it curious how many people kowtow to this man Franklin Graham. More details on this transaction would seem appropriate.

    • Thanks for your comment, Brother Doc. In the board packet, to which we provided a link in our article, you will find that the “Tax Release” for the parcel in question was for $1,281. If I understand the language, that is on an assessed valuation of $328,600, evidently for a condominium at 165 Rippling Brook Way (in Chetola). There is no description of the non-profit purpose of the property and at least per the Release Request form, none is required. As for the rest of your concerns, rightly or wrongly, registered non-profit organizations are afforded property tax breaks, by law. Since Samaritan’s Purse is the parcel owner and also a non-profit, I would guess that the Town Manager and Finance Director concluded that, by law, Samaritan’s Purse is entitled to this release, so wasting Town Council time on a non-issue seems counter-productive (although I would not presume to put words in their respective mouths).

      Property ownership going from private hands to non-profit hands (so the town loses tax revenue) also goes the other way. Case in point: a few years ago The Town of Blowing Rock annexed roughly 68 acres into the town for the construction and development of the Chestnut Ridge post-acute care and rehabilitation center. Since the owner, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, is a non-profit, that ownership was not subject to property taxes. Effective October 1st, that property, including the development of the entire campus, I understand, has been acquired by a for-profit company, Liberty Healthcare out of Wilmington. Consequently, Blowing Rock and Watauga County will both see and increase in property taxes because of the change in ownership. Some town officials are calling it a “windfall.” Whatever you call it, and whichever way the transfer of ownership goes, those are the laws that govern us. If we don’t like the laws, then we need to elect representatives who will work to change them the way we think is more fair. Again, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

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