Finishing the job: Canton budgets for the future 18 months after Fred
When Canton officials and administrators met for their annual budget retreat last year, Town Manager Nick Scheuer’s presentation was riddled with question marks — signs of uncertainty after widespread flooding caused more than $18 million in damages to town infrastructure and killed six.
This year, almost all of last year’s questions have been answered as the town looks to complete the recovery process and move forward focusing on infrastructure and on its employees.
“Where we are now, it’s a celebration. We’ve got a town behind us, and a town that we fight for,” Alderman Ralph Hamlett said during the Feb. 9 retreat. “I think all of us in this room are optimistic about the way forward.”
With so many projects completed or underway or complete, managing cash flow will be a priority for Scheuer and CFO Natalie Walker.
On the revenue side, Canton’s ad valorem tax collection rate is right where it needs to be, and sales tax revenue remains strong, suggesting the upsurge wasn’t just an artifact of the Coronavirus Pandemic. As of November, sales tax collections were up by $72,000 year-to-date over last fiscal year.
The biggest highlight was the fact that the town has received $10 million in grant funding or direct allocations from the General Assembly — a substantial amount, given the town’s annual general fund of about $7.5 million.
Most if not all of those grants and allocations were directly related to damage suffered when the remnants of Tropical Storm Fred inundated parts of Bethel, Canton, Clyde and Cruso in August 2021.
Renovation of the Champion Credit Union Aquatic Center has been completed. The dog park has been restored. Repairs to the walking trail are done. Design and build awards for the armory, the Colonial Theatre, the fire department, police department and town hall have been issued. Sites for the new town hall and police department have been purchased, and selection of a location for the new fire department is well underway. All FEMA projects have either been obligated or are in the final stages of obligation.
“I think people forget that this was just 18 months ago,” Scheuer said, displaying a photo of flooded-out downtown Canton. “It just speaks to the resiliency of our community.”
To date, recovery expenditures have topped $4.8 million. Revenue from FEMA and flood insurance totals $4.3 million, leaving a net $533,000 deficit, however more money is on the way.
“We’re still deep in the recovery process, and we just need to be cognizant of that,” Scheuer said, adding that he felt the town would be “made whole” and come away with some generational infrastructure improvements at no cost to Canton’s taxpayers.
Stormwater culverts have been replaced throughout the town. Sidewalk work on Newfound Road is finished. A temporary bridge at Chestnut Mountain — meant to provide access for first responders in case of emergency — is complete, after flooding washed the previous bridge away. The wastewater pre-treatment facility is done, as is the purchase of additional land to allow for future expansion. The filter plant has been improved, and more improvements are coming.
With so many flood-related projects in the rearview mirror, it’s easy to forget that before the flood, Canton was devoting significant attention to recreation due to demands from residents as well as a desire to capitalize on the town’s proximity to booming Asheville and its oppressive housing market.
Alderman Tim Shepard noted that Sorrells Street Park, created after the flood in 2004, was “really coming together.” At the recreation park, basketball courts have been resurfaced and pickleball court equipment is being installed.
The town has also raised more than $280,000 for an all-abilities playground, and recently selected the same designers, Carolina Parks & Play, as the Town of Waynesville did back in 2018. News of whether a $500,000 grant will be awarded by the state’s Accessibility for Parks (AFP) program is expected in early March.
Scheuer mentioned that there’s been anecdotal evidence that the recent addition of Chestnut Mountain to the town’s offerings is increasing visitation to the area. A forthcoming Montreat University economic impact study is expected to confirm that, even before new trails are opened to the public this summer.
Flood recovery, recreational improvements and modest population growth will continue to highlight future infrastructure needs that aren’t strictly related to the effects of the flood.
A water system regionalization study is expected soon, as recent droughts have also exposed vulnerabilities in the delivery of safe, clean water across Haywood County.
Alderwoman Kristina Proctor said that managing the infrastructure of a growing town was her chief concern. Mayor Pro-Temp Gail Mull, along with Hamlett, was a bit more specific in mentioning wastewater treatment.
Scheuer estimates that such a project, if undertaken, would take five to seven years and cost upward of $30 million. Now is the time, Scheuer said, to begin asking the General Assembly for direct allocations toward the project.
Mayor Zeb Smathers mentioned that the town also needs to begin making more assertive asks of the North Carolina Department of Transportation,because the town’s roads weren’t originally designed to handle the volume, size and weight of current traffic.
As an alternate east-west route through Western North Carolina, Canton can quickly become snarled with traffic whenever anything happens on Interstate 40, from the gorge to Interstate 26.
“If we don’t get help, this is going to be a major crisis for us,” Smathers said.
The town’s Powell Bill funding only amounts to about $160,000 a year, Walker told the board, and about $100,000 of that is gone in an instant — for potholes, salt, plowing equipment and the like — leaving a paltry $60,000 for repaving. Repaving is expensive, and $60,000 would do almost nothing to improve the condition of some of Canton’s worst roads.
During the meeting, Smathers and Shepard floated the idea of resurrecting a municipal vehicle tax, like Waynesville and Maggie Valley have.
Although a nominal $30 per-vehicle charge would likely double the amount of money available for repaving each year, residents strongly opposed such a proposition when it was brought up in 2018. Inflation and an uncertain economic forecast will likely make that a tough sell this year as well, should the board pursue it.
A property tax increase remains extremely unlikely, according to Smathers; however, Walker said that there may be a small increase in water, sewer and/or trash fees.
Proctor went on to express her desire to continue supporting Canton’s most valuable resource — the employees who have helped guide the town through the recovery process — by including a cost-of-living increase at 1-3% as well as continuing the customary Christmas bonus, merit-based hourly increases, robust insurance coverage and 401k match.
“Our staff carries the Town of Canton,” she said. “They serve our citizens, showing up and running toward crisis every time. They support our town in ways we never see and understand the importance of their roles in our community. It’s our job to show them our appreciation by any means we can afford.”
The town’s 2023-2024 budget book is now with department heads, who will review it and submit requests for staff to review by early March. Per General Statutes, local government units must pass annual budgets by July 1 each year. A public hearing will be conducted before adoption.