By David Rogers. June 10, 2020. BLOWING ROCK, NC – If there is a silver lining to the global COVID-19 pandemic it might well be the Town of Blowing Rock’s discovery of financial austerity. In a time of nationwide financial and economic turmoil, it is a good bet that every Blowing Rock real estate owner is thankful that the property tax rate will not increase in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2020.
Preparing the upcoming fiscal year’s budget – and balancing it per North Carolina’s state mandate for municipalities to have balanced budgets – was not without its challenges for Town Manager Shane Fox, Finance Director Nicole Norman and the town staff department heads:
- FY2020-21 will see more than $300,000 added to debt service on the 2014 Community Improvement bonds
- Because of the COVID-19 economic lockdown, three significant revenue sources are projected to see decreases in the coming fiscal year:
- Blowing Rock’s net sales tax receipts are projected to be down 30%, or a net decrease of $275,000
- Lodging-related occupancy tax receipts are projected to decline 40%, or $134,000 lower
- Parks & Recreation projects a $67,000 (50%) shortfall vs. a year ago
With those challenges, the balanced budget approved Tuesday night by the Board of Commissioners, with no tax or fee increases, might seem unlikely, but here are the highlights of the $10.9 million annual budget prepared under 2020’s challenging financial and economic conditions:
- Property tax revenue is up 2.7% (approximately $130,000) at the current tax rate ($0.39) because the tax base increased $33.6 million with new construction
- Personnel expenditures will remain relatively flat, with NO Cost of Living or Merit-based increases
- The only special personnel costs will be funding for a School Resource Officer and adding one new dispatcher as the Town takes back dispatch services on July 1, 2020
- Compared to the 2019-20 fiscal year, the Town’s Capital Outlays (also referred to as capital investments) will see a decrease of $326,000 with a freeze on new capital spending projects. The only budgeted capital outlays are both Police Department related: one new police cruiser and new equipment for taking back dispatch services
- Also compared to FY2019-20, Operating Expenditures will decrease approximately 10%, or approximately $200,000. Overall, according to the budget document, the FY2020-21 budget is a $56,412 decrease compared to FY2019-20
- The Town is utilizing $228,000 from the General Fund balance, approximately 2% of the General Fund, drawn from excess reserves. No portion of the fund balance is being utilized for the Water & Sewer budget.
Foggy Rock CUP Amendment Request
The Board of Commissioners tabled consideration of Foggy Rock restaurant’s CUP amendment request to develop an arcade-type of addition to the basement of the restaurant. Two issues were of primary concern for the commissioners. The owner of Foggy Rock, Bert Myers, wanted to use the parking at his adjacent sister restaurant, Sunny Rock, to satisfy the additional parking spaces for the arcade addition. On the surface, that seemed to be a logical provision since Sunny Rock closes each day about 1:30 pm and the arcade plans indicated it would not open until 5:00 pm, but the commissioners were concerned that the real estate upon which Sunny Rock operates is leased and there was no evidence provided that the property owner had been contacted. The commissioners concerns included what might happen if the property owner decided to sell or repurpose the real estate.
Commissioner Sue Sweeting’s concern centered on whether or not neighbors (across the river) had been notified about the plans. Planning Director Kevin Rothrock stated that he didn’t think that was necessary, but ultimately a majority of the commissioners seemed to side with Sweeting.
Blowing Rock TDA Presentation
The commissioners heard a presentation by Tracy Brown, Executive Director of the Blowing Rock Tourism Develop Authority (TDA). Brown provided significant detail to the adverse fortunes of the TDA due to the nationwide economic lockdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Brown explained to Town Council that Blowing Rock’s lodging industry, which generates the occupancy taxes upon which the TDA depends as its sole source of revenue, was on track for a banner year before the shutdown. However, because of the lockdown and the current uncertainty for the summer months he is projecting as much as a 40% decline in occupancy tax revenue in FY2020-21.
Valley Blvd. “Visioning” Project
The Town Council received a report from Rothrock on the U.S. 321 “visioning” initiative, including comments and feedback from each of the Planning Board members who had read Benchmark Consulting’s findings. All of those comments are available in the board packet, found HERE.
RTAC Representative Replacement
With Commissioner Albert Yount stepping down as Blowing Rock’s representative on the High Country Rural Transportation Advisory Committee, the Board of Commissioners needed to replace him with one of its members to represent Blowing Rock. Commissioner David Harwood was selected as that replacement representative.
Code Amendment Governing Emergencies
As provided for by Town Code, in March Mayor Charlie Sellers declared a “state of emergency” following a similar declaration by Watauga County. On May 19th, Sellers stated that he sent an email to the other Town Council members that he was going to relax the restrictions on the 14-day self-quarantine on visitors and seasonal residents and hotel short-term rentals. “I heard from every Council member and (all) had good points,” Sellers recalled. He noted further that the commissioners asked him to hold off on such a declaration until they all met the following Thursday. So, he explained, he pulled his request to relax the restrictions. “It worked well. We all worked well together.”
Sellers then explained that what the commissioners wanted to do was change the current Town Code that gives the mayor the authority to declare a state of emergency as well as when it has ended. He detailed a proposal that the mayor could declare a state of emergency, but anything beyond that would require a majority vote of the Board of Commissioners.
Commissioner Doug Matheson stated that he was against the amendment because he thought the entire Code section was outdated. “The whole Chapter 9 needs to be updated,” Matheson said in noting that there were problems throughout those ordinances. “I would like the Emergency Services Director, Town Manager, Police Chief and Planning Director to look at Section 9 as a whole and bring us an updated version…We have never been through something like this (pandemic) before and I feel there are some things that need to be (changed or) added.”
Commissioner Albert Yount moved to adopt the proposed amendments to Sections 9-2 and 9-5 of Town Code and the Board voted 4-1 (Matheson was the “nay” vote) to adopt them. During discussion, there also seemed to be unanimous consensus that, long-term, the whole of Chapter 9 should be reviewed and updated.
After various comments by board members, the meeting was adjourned at approximately 8:30, after roughly two and a half hours.