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Road project guides Sylva budget talks

Sylva commissioners decide where to place their stickers on the wants list, indicating               prioritized expenditures. Holly Kays photo Sylva commissioners decide where to place their stickers on the wants list, indicating prioritized expenditures. Holly Kays photo

Sylva’s finances are in a good place going into the 2020 budget season, but with the N.C. 107 project looming there’s no room for complacency. 

“We’ve been trying to spend less,” Town Manager Paige Dowling said during a budget planning meeting Jan. 23. “We’ve been trying to raise the fund balance knowing that there are going to be several years when the town is not going to receive the property tax revenue or the sales tax revenue that we’ve been used to.”

Right-of-way acquisition for the project is imminent, with construction starting in February 2023 and lasting about 3.5 years. N.C. 107 is Sylva’s main commercial corridor, and while the final road plan has yet to be released, early versions have listed 55 businesses likely to be eligible for relocation as a result of the road project. 

In 2019, the town board approved a budget that was nearly $200,000 lower than the previous year, and the fund balance has risen from 67.36 percent in January 2019 to 81.4 percent, or $3.28 million, in January 2020. 

It’s difficult to say exactly how much and for how long the road project will drain Sylva’s coffers. Dowling said that most other towns she’s looked at for comparison saw their property tax revenues increase following a major road project but that she suspects there were other variables at play, like a property tax revaluation shifting the scales. There’s also the fact that N.C. 107 is really Sylva’s only commercial corridor, while other towns had commercial corridors that were not impacted by the road project. Dowling said town staff have talked about a 12 percent decrease in tax base, but right now that’s really just a guess. 

As department heads and board members listed their wants and needs for the year ahead, the uncertainty surrounding N.C. 107 was a constant backdrop. 

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Under Dowling’s definition, a need is an expenditure that allows the town to accomplish the same level of service, while a want allows the town to expand its services. Needs listed in the work session include continued contributions to the N.C. 107 sidewalk fund, surveillance cameras on the public works building in response to recent vandalism, a comprehensive land use plan and Powell Bill road map as required by the state legislature, crosswalk maintenance and painting, and two new police vehicles. 

Despite the need for ongoing belt-tightening, two personnel-related expenditures also made it onto the needs list. 

“I think we need to seriously talk about a Main Street director,” said Dowling, who currently serves as Main Street director in addition to her responsibilities’ as town manager. “Our Main Street program’s going. The committees are fully functioning. They’re doing a lot more, and because the town’s getting busier I’ve got less time to devote to Main Street than I did three, five, eight years ago.”

Dowling suggested hiring a part-time person and wrote $25,000 as the placeholder salary figure. 

Police Chief Chris Hatton also made it clear that the town needs two additional police officers if his department is to continue providing the same level of service. Call volumes have been skyrocketing, increasing by 30 percent between 2016 and 2019 with total arrests more than doubling in the same period. 

“The 107 project’s coming, and I don’t think that’s going to cause our police calls to go down,” he said. “As a matter of fact, I think it’s probably going to go up quite a bit. Our citizens are calling us at a record rate. They’ve never needed us this much.”

Salary and benefits combined total $51,482 per new officer, said Hatton, with a fully equipped vehicle costing about $40,000. Hiring two officers would therefore cost about $183,000 the first year with an ongoing cost of $103,000 annually. Commissioner David Nestler said he recognizes the need but asked why the county sheriff’s office couldn’t play a larger role in town policing given that town residents pay county taxes as well. 

“I don’t know of any situation where the sheriff’s office takes responsibility for things that happen inside city limits,” Hatton replied, “but as far as asking them for help, we ask them for help every day.”

Some of the heftier “needs” also made it to the “wants” list, including the additional police officers and Main Street director. Commissioners “voted” on their priorities by affixing stickers from a pad given to each of them beside each listed want. The additional officers and Main Street director received the most support, with 21 stickers for police officers and 14 for the Main Street director. 

The next most popular want was green infrastructure at Bridge Park, with 13 stickers. In December 2018, the Asheville-based consulting firm Equinox delivered the results of a report evaluating the status of Fisher Creek and forming a plan to improve it, but the town board has not yet taken action on the recommendations. 

Developing multi-use trails at the recently purchased Blackrock Creek property adjoining Pinnacle Park was also a popular priority, with 13 stickers. Hatton’s request for a RZR all-terrain vehicle so that police could access the property in an emergency drew less support — five stickers — but Hatton made it clear that he considered it a need. 

“This is a big challenge for the police department,” he said. “Next year we’ll be talking about more of this.”

Hatton’s request for $3,000 to buy new winter coats for his officers drew more support, with nine stickers. Other listed wants included work order software for public works (six stickers), a public bathroom downtown (nine) and signage for the restroom in the police department (one), a pump track (eight), improvements at Bryson Park (five), crosswalk improvements (six), decorative streetlights on Mill Street (six), a betterment fund for the N.C. 107 project (seven), plants in the curb bump-outs (11), sidewalk repairs (seven) and a side walk in front of Nantahala Brewing (two).

Going forward, departments will work on their individual budgets and submit those requests to Dowling, who will present the results to commissioners for prioritization during a budget workshop at 10 a.m. Thursday, March 26. 

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