The future of the Downtown Sylva Association remains unclear despite a move by town leaders to increase public funding for the group.
The town board unanimously voted last week to increase funding from $12,000 to $15,000 a year, but that amount still falls short of the $25,000 the downtown association says it needs.
“It is very appreciated, but it still doesn’t get us where we need to be,” said DSA Executive Director Julie Sylvester minutes after town leaders made their decision.
DSA, the group charged with spotlighting and underpinning Sylva’s vibrant downtown scene, has stated it faces “solvency” dangers without the $25,000. DSA wants to drop what it claims is an unsustainable funding method — raising money directly from merchants. The group hoped the town would make up the difference. It’s unclear whether the group will now continue soliciting extra funds from downtown businesses.
Mayor Maurice Moody told fellow town leaders that DSA’s total budget each year is in excess of $50,000.
“If you under-fund them, whether you intend it or not, there’s a chance they may go away,” Moody said.
Commissioner Harold Hensley said an article in The Smoky Mountain News two weeks ago mischaracterized where he and fellow board members Danny Allen and Ray Lewis stood on the issue. He said they never intended to totally cut DSA off the town’s funding list. They simply felt that the $25,000 being requested is too much.
“I said we could leave it (at the same amount) … but we do have other things we have to look at,” Hensley said, saying he wanted to keep DSA at $12,000.
Hensley also said he wanted clarity that there is no “power struggle going on on this board. Everybody has their own ideas — but I don’t call it a power struggle.”
Allen said he agreed with Hensley.
“I don’t think there’s one board member that wants to cut DSA,” Allen said. “Fund as is … In the past, we’ve gotten that rap about not funding DSA, but we do want to fund DSA.”
Allen then qualified his support by noting that funding anything is difficult given the economic climate, saying, “we have to take a hard look at what we fund and what we don’t fund.”
Allen said town merchants he’s talked to want money put toward paying a policeman to work the downtown area.
Hensley also said if the town wanted to give DSA funding that approaches the $20,000 level, then he strongly believed that the director’s position ought to transition to a town staff position. Sylvester receives $20,000 a year for 20 hours a week. She also receives $250 a month for a health-savings account.
North Carolina requires a paid director for towns to participate in the Main Street program. The program is important, among other reasons, because it opens the door to grants, which towns otherwise don’t qualify to receive.
Commissioner Chris Matheson told Hensley that bringing a new employee on board with the town entails much more than simply paying that person’s base salary, citing health benefits and so on.
Hensley said perhaps Town Manager Adrienne Isenhower or Town Clerk/Tax Collector Brandi King “could be the Main Street person.”
“If you are going to start appropriating that kind of money, you ought to have it in-house,” Hensley said.
Commissioner Stacy Knotts said Isenhower and King have fulltime jobs as it is, without taking on DSA duties.
Ultimately, the commissioners in a compromise decided on an additional $3,000 in the budget to DSA bringing their funding to $15,000, plus gave a Neighbors in Need help group just more than $1,000 at Allen’s request.
“I’d also like to say we need to keep in mind the policeman on Main Street,” Allen added.
Board members also discussed a flat raise for all town employees who make under $50,000 instead of an across the board cost-of-living increase.
Hensley said dividing up the proposed 2.5 percent increase would give $1,020.28 to those making below $50,000 though he asked not to be held strictly to his math.
“We’ve got some people that’s really low paid in this town,” he said.
The other commissioners indicated they agreed with Hensley’s proposal, but Matheson and Commissioner Stacy Knotts emphasized this was a one-time deal that they’d want to revisit next year.