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Canton budget – a tangled web?

haywoodWhen Alderman Zeb Smathers opened the Canton Board of Aldermen meeting on May 26 with an invocation decrying the “venom and negativity” in the national political climate, one could almost interpret it as the ominous foreshadowing of what was expected to be a tempestuous meeting.

But that storm never materialized. 

Instead, Smathers — along with fellow board members Carole Edwards, Dr. Ralph Hamlett, Gail Mull, and Mayor Mike Ray — began the meeting by dutifully fielding criticism from the Crossroads Hill Water Association regarding ongoing claims that it pays the second-highest water rate in North Carolina for users outside of town limits. 

Meat-and-potatoes infrastructure issues like water rates are common in towns large and small, from coast to coast. These issues are especially important in small towns like Canton, where a stagnant ad valorem tax base and heaps of anti-municipal sentiment from Raleigh are making the struggle to attract, retain, and diversify commercial, industrial, and residential investment more challenging each year. In addition, there is the never-ending necessity of infrastructure maintenance, which isn’t exactly small potatoes. 

Accordingly, aldermen focused on Canton’s coffers, working through a budget workshop lasting more than three hours as they charted the town’s financial course for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. 

Town Manager Seth Hendler-Voss took the board, page by page, through a pre-budgeting worksheet that’s most striking feature was the forecast of a $288,000 budget shortfall on revenues of just over $6 million in a town that already has the highest tax rate in Haywood County — 58 cents per $100 valuation.

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Notably, as they sifted through the budget, line by line, the most interesting exchanges during the workshop took place between Hendler-Voss and the board when discussing an overlooked piece of the town’s infrastructure badly in need of refurbishment.

At the time this particular piece of infrastructure was commissioned by Canton, it was the state-of-the-art result of a savvy act of political foresight. Functional and attractive and befitting the proud legacy of Papertown USA, it served residents and businesses for about a decade until languishing due to obsolescence and outright neglect. 

That infrastructure — digital infrastructure, to be more precise — is the town’s website, 

Hendler-Voss’ inclusion of a $25,000 line item for a new website drew questioning from the entire board, probably because it represents almost 9 percent of the projected budget shortfall. 

Rehabbing the existing website at a cheaper cost, Hendler-Voss said, is an undesirable option, as it was originally created on a design platform that does not manage content as effectively as newer platforms.

Residents seeking to relocate often begin with a simple Google search, and while Canton’s website does indeed come up at the top of the results, the site itself – although functional — leaves much to be desired. It has almost 40 different buttons, links, and dropdown menus on the home page alone that can make it difficult for the uninitiated to find useful information quickly. Meeting agendas haven’t been updated since January 2015, and the mobile version of the site is buggy and unpredictable because it was built before the proliferation of smartphones and hasn’t kept pace with yearly advancements in tablet technology.

Corporations considering investment in any community flee from the slightest suggestion of instability, incompetence, or obfuscation; Canton’s website hints at all three, which is a stark contrast to the reality of a town that has, as late, taken proactive steps to project the image of an attractive community in which to live, work, and play. Recreation spending is up, beautification is under way, and, importantly, Hendler-Voss and board members have made great strides in managing the town’s general fund more effectively.

So the real question is, can Canton afford not to spend the money?

Unlike more traditionally recognized bits of infrastructure, digital infrastructure sometimes doesn’t get the attention it deserves because potholes and pipelines are pressing issues that cause major problems. However, a more robust web presence might help Canton attract new businesses and residents that could spell the end of budget shortfalls like the one they now face. 

As the workshop drew to a close, the proposed website improvements appeared headed for the chopping block, but the prophesized storm that never materialized will have at least one more opportunity to manifest itself — Canton’s next budget hearing is set for June 9, and board members have some tough decisions to make before then.

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