“The board is now able to come to consensus with or without being in complete agreement,” said Alderman Saralyn Price. “We have positive attitudes and we’re moving forward.”
She then read off a long list of accomplishments that included hiring a new town manager and a new town attorney, not raising taxes while providing excellent services, treating businesses and residents equally and keeping a full festival grounds schedule without a director in place.
A majority of decisions that came before the board ended in a 2-to-2 deadlock because the three members and the mayor couldn’t agree on a vacancy appointment for more than a year. It wasn’t until the November 2013 elections that the board was able to fill the position and move forward.
Mayor Ron DeSimone said during the planning meeting that he wanted to put a safeguard in place to prevent that from happening again. It would require an update to the town’s charter, which would have to get legislative approval.
“The board would be given an amount of time to fill a vacancy, and if they can’t agree on one, we’ll kick it to the county commissioners and let them appoint someone,” DeSimone said. “In my mind it’s better than the position we were in with the stalemate.”
DeSimone said he spoke to several commissioners who seemed receptive to the idea, but his real hope is that with the safeguard in place, the board would be more inclined to agree on an appointment before it ever reached that point. He said the UNC School of Government said another option was to let the Superior Court make the appointment because it is nonpartisan.
“But a local board seat isn’t partisan anyway, and I think the commissioners have more insight into the dynamic of the town and board,” he said.
The board will work on drafting language for the charter amendment to present to legislators.
The other legislative priority the town wants to pursue is getting the Legislature to allow municipal employees to be eligible for the state insurance plan. DeSimone said he spoke to Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, about it and he said there had already been some discussion about such a move.
“That would be a huge budget saver if we can do it,” said Alderman Janet Banks.
Alderman Mike Eveland agreed that being able to offer the state plan to the town’s employees would make the annual budgeting process a lot easier. With new health care guidelines and increasing premium cots each year, small municipalities like Maggie Valley have a hard time maintaining the same level of coverage each year. Last year, the town switched from Blue Cross Blue Shield to a plan with Coventry Health Care to avoid a 26 percent increase in health care costs.
“It would allow us to offer a good benefit package without the budget stress every single year,” he said.
Festival grounds progress
Another challenge in late 2013 occurred when the town board fired festival grounds director Audrey Hager and accepted the resignation of Town Manager Tim Barth following financial misconduct with an event at the festival grounds.
The board chose not to replace the festival grounds director position, and Town Clerk Vickie Best has taken over booking. To avoid similar problems at the festival grounds, the board updated its festival grounds policies. The board also has started cutting back on festival ground expenses and set stricter rental fees in an effort to make the grounds more self-sustaining.
While the town is still responsible for the maintenance and booking of events, it will no longer act as a promoter of any events other than its Fourth of July celebration. Board members seem pleased with how things ran at the festival grounds in 2014.
Best said she was still working to finalize the 2015 festival grounds schedule. A few dates are being held for some signature events, but Best is still waiting on applications from several promoters, including Hillbilly Woodstock, Thunder in the Smokies, PlottFest and Oktoberfest.
“We still have them penciled in and we’re willing to work with them — they just need to get their applications in,” said Town Manager Nathan Clark.
The board also is looking toward the future by setting more goals for 2015. Price said she was looking forward to continuing beautification projects in the valley, putting more focus on promoting Maggie’s history and heritage, creating a master plan for the town, remodeling the town hall board room and completing the second phase of leveling out the festival grounds.
Banks agreed that creating a master plan is a major priority for 2015. The board approved a $25,000 contract with J.M. Teague Engineering in November to develop a town center master plan. A community project team will collect data and start putting together proposals before holding public meetings to collect feedback.
“I think the board has led this community as well as Haywood County into thinking more positively … and as a result we’ve gotten a whole lot better press,” she said. “The year before we were on the front page every day, but not any more.”
As for long-term planning, Banks said she would like to see the town establish a historical museum to help preserve the valley’s heritage. She said residents would probably have plenty of items to donate.
Alderman Phillip Wight said he would like to open up committee seats to business owners instead of limiting appointments to town residents only.
Clark said that is a possibility except for the planning and zoning board. The zoning board has to follow state statutes, which require members to live in the town.