Tough decisions in store for Waynesville budget
As the town of Waynesville digs into the budget process for the 2021-22 fiscal year, aldermen are again considering ways to improve the transparency and efficiency of government, spruce up the cash-cow downtown district and augment public safety — all without handing residents a tax increase.
The Coronavirus Pandemic did not, as some supposed a year ago, result in ruination for the town’s coffers, however a long list of expensive needs and wants will test the ability of new Mayor Gary Caldwell’s administration to craft a budget that maintains both the allure and the affordability of living in a town often referred to as “The Gateway to the Smokies.”
Changes to meetings
For years, the town’s regular Board of Aldermen meetings have taken place on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month. That practice will continue, but a temporary move of the meeting’s start time from 6:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. will now become permanent.
That change will help meetings end earlier in the evening, however it’s not the only change being considered in that regard. A proposal to begin using a consent agenda was heard, and will likely appear on an upcoming agenda for a vote. Consent agendas, consisting largely of non-controversial housekeeping measures, are used by other local government units including Haywood County and allow for the passage of several items all at once.
The town’s audio-visual system — dating back to the 1970s — will also receive an upgrade, to the tune of about $30,000. That includes new cameras and television display screens to make it easier for people to tune in from home, or for overflow crowds in the town hall to see and hear the action without overcrowding the board room.
Additional security and safety measures at board meetings are also being considered in response to an incident last fall, when a story in The Mountaineer led people to believe that aldermen planned to vote on a mandatory mask ordinance that same night.
An overflow crowd disrupted that meeting, and many who were present said they were aware of weapons possessed by some in attendance. State law prohibits open-carry and concealed carry at such government meetings. Rather than opting for a pricey walk-through detector, wands may end up being purchased and used by the town instead.
Commercial district improvements
Waynesville’s Main Street draws thousands of tourists each year, providing a significant boost to the local economy, but it hasn’t seen major enhancements in quite some time even though the Downtown Waynesville Association’s job is to take the initiative on such objectives. Mayor Gary Caldwell wants to change that.
“Downtown Waynesville needs some improvements,” Caldwell told aldermen during the retreat.
Right now, a gazebo is being considered, with a tentative location near the two metal figurines at the corner of North Main and Miller streets. As proposed, it would result in the elimination of two handicapped parking spaces, which aren’t ADA-compliant due to Miller’s Street’s sloping grade. Modeled after a large gazebo in downtown Franklin, the proposed gazebo would be an expensive project due to local fire codes.
Downtown’s other park, in the oft-overlooked location facing the Historic Haywood Courthouse at the corner of North Main and Depot streets, could also be in line for a makeover or even a water feature to boost utilization.
Frog Level also hasn’t escaped scrutiny; town officials will take another look at putting a fence back up between the Commerce Street parking lot and the railroad tracks that border it. Previously a fence had been installed, but it was removed after people kept backing into it.
Lighting has also been a concern in the area, but aldermen expressed interest in a plan to place a dozen new light fixtures in the area, similar to the ones up on North Main Street. Those retro-style fixtures do a good job of illuminating the area, but they also shed light on one of the town’s most persistent, problematic issues.
“It’s embarrassing,” Caldwell said of the condition of Main Street. “It’s like driving on a gravel road.”
Main Street, as well as Pigeon Street, were both on a list of about 20 or so Waynesville streets slated to be resurfaced by the North Carolina Department of Transportation, but Pigeon and Main were removed from the list, from Raleigh, due to a funding crunch caused by the mismanagement of more than $740 million by NCDOT.
Aldermen recommended pushing the issue up to Waynesville’s House Representative, Bryson City Republican Mike Clampitt, and will also ask for additional monies to repair other potholed streets.
Although Waynesville’s retail and entertainment options are a big draw for visitors, all of that is predicated on the overall health of the surrounding environment. To that end, Alderman Chuck Dickson brought up the town’s current lack of recycling containers.
Right now, the town is awaiting a grant that’s being worked on by the county. Once it’s approved, the county will bid out the containers, and the town will buy them directly from the county. Aldermen are also considering hydraulic upgrades to the town’s trash collection vehicles that would lift and empty refuse bins and thereby prevent employee injuries.
The town is also studying the feasibility of getting out of the trash business and engaging a private company to perform the task, like those that serve Canton and Maggie Valley instead.
Public safety needs are seemingly never-ending, with budget requests for facilities, personnel and vehicles a regular occurrence at budget meetings across the state.
This year was no different for Waynesville, as Chief David Adams — celebrating a year on the job — seeks to continue the progress made in police reform since the murder of Minneapolis man George Floyd at the hands of police officers last summer.
Alderman Anthony Sutton has made it a priority to ensure Waynesville’s police avoid lethal use-of-force incidents as much as possible. To that end, Adams reported that the town’s use-of-force policy had been revised to eliminate chokeholds except in case of emergency, and a dozen shotguns had been refurbished to fire plastic pellets instead of buckshot.
Adams’ department also implemented the use of cloud-based body cams back in December, but Adams lamented the fact that as of right now, Waynesville is the only local department without tasers.
Aldermen responded to Adams’ concern and approved his request to purchase some tasers, as well as another less-than-lethal weapon called the BolaWrap .
Essentially, the BolaWrap is a pair of projectiles joined together by a long cord. When striking the target, the BolaWrap quickly spirals around the target, binding arms or legs and greatly impairing mobility. Adams said his previous department, Hendersonville, uses both tasers and BolaWraps.
The last time Waynesville raised property taxes — back in 2016, by more than 10 percent — it was mostly to hire more firefighters to ensure the understaffed department’s compliance with OSHA standards mandating a two-in, two-out rule: for two firefighters to enter a structure, there must also be two firefighters outside, in case rescue is needed.
This year, Waynesville officials will need to get creative to ensure Chief Joey Webb’s department has the facilities and equipment it so clearly needs. Webb explained that the National Fire Protection Association’s response standards demands that 15 people arrive at an incident in less than 9 minutes at least 90 percent of the time.
In 2020, Waynesville’s fire department met that standard exactly zero times. Volunteerism is down across all sectors, Webb explained, and on average only seven or eight firefighters could respond to calls, even with mutual aid from other departments.
Additionally, the department’s aging fleet of trucks is becoming a cause for concern.
The average age of Waynesville’s firefighting vehicles is more than 18 years. The department’s ladder truck dates to 2004, and the tanker truck is about to begin its fourth decade of service.
Adding additional personnel or newer vehicles would be a welcome development for the WFD, but almost none of that can happen until new facilities are considered.
The station on North Main Street only has two bedrooms and would need an expansion, while the Hazelwood station, the department’s busiest even before new housing developments in the area come online, is also out of room and has no facilities for females.
Webb said his department has more than $2 million in needs — not wants, needs.
“As a fire chief it just makes me nervous,” Webb said.
Town Manager Rob Hites suggested setting up a meeting with a bond attorney to evaluate funding options, possibly including the issuance of a general obligation bond that would require approval from voters.
Per state law municipal budgets must be approved no later than June 30 each year. Direction from aldermen to Hites will determine what the preliminary budget looks like. Then, it will be presented to the public during a meeting, and will come up for a vote in a subsequent meeting, likely the first meeting in June. For more information or to contact Waynesville’s elected officials, visit www.waynesvillenc.gov.