A 3-2 majority of Mayor Tom Bennett and Councilmen Christopher Nason and Jim Conners voted at yesterday’s fiscal year 2019-20 budget work session to appropriate nearly $1 million from the Town’s unassigned fund balance for the construction of a five-foot-wide concrete sidewalk on South Dogwood Trail, but denied any monetary relief for traffic reduction on the cut-through route.
Councilmen Fred Newberry and Gary McDonald voted against withdrawing monies for the sidewalk from what is viewed as an emergency fund reserve and in favor of “putting no-left-turn monies into the budget,” as Mr. McDonald phrased a motion for summer weekend traffic reduction.
Town Manager/Budget Officer Peter Rascoe presented the Council with a draft of FY 2019-20 projected expenses and revenues showing a balance of $6,220,846. (See The Beacon’s report on 4/18/19.) A primary purpose of the work session was for the Council to consider and propose additions, deletions, or modifications of the preliminary budget.
In what turned out to be a fractious discussion about planning and priorities that exposed, in The Beacon’s opinion, a lack of leadership and communication, the Town Council unanimously agreed only on the need to insert a budgetary line item of about $200,000 to pay for improvements to the Town’s building complex.
Most troubling for The Beacon was the decision by the Bennett-Conners-Nason majority to essentially treat the proposed sidewalk, which proponents want to build along the east side of South Dogwood Trail from the intersection of North-South-East Dogwood Trails south to the cemetery, as something other than a capital project.
The front yards of the dozens of homeowners affected by the construction “will be altered drastically,” Mayor Bennett said.
SOUTH DOGWOOD TRAIL SIDEWALK FUNDING
The idea for using funds other than those appropriated annually for the Town’s capital improvements projects originated with the Town Manager, who suggested it at the Feb. 12, 2018 meeting of the Capital Infrastructure Improvement Plan (“CIIP”) Committee.
Mayor Bennett and Councilman Conners co-chair this committee, which determines the priority of street and other infrastructure improvement projects, including walkways. The Beacon’s correspondents have observed, however, that Mr. Rascoe effectively runs the committee’s meetings.
By previous agreement, the Town Council has determined that five cents out of every 22 cents per $100 of property value collected in Town real-estate taxes will be appropriated for the annual capital improvements budget. In FY 2019-20, that amount is projected to be $662,340.
At yesterday’s budget session, Councilman McDonald proposed increasing the set-aside from property taxes to seven cents, but his motion was defeated 2-3, with the Bennett-Conners-Nason majority voting against it.
Instead, pursuant to a motion made by Councilman Conners, the majority implemented Mr. Rascoe’s idea of removing the South Dogwood Trail sidewalk project from the capital improvements budget.
According to minutes of the Feb. 12 CIIP Committee meeting that Mr. Rascoe himself drafted:
“The Town Manager also suggested an idea to the Committee. He stated he is not a member of the Committee and is not recommending but only stating an idea the Committee might care to consider. One idea might be for the Committee to return its current working prioritization of a future capital improvement of South Dogwood Trail to its previous working [priority] ranking of [no. 13 or 14 in Group B, and with that reprioritization, for planning purposes] any Council member might then consider recommending to the Town Council a separate construction project for a walking trail along South Dogwood Trail—funded separately from the Council’s annual capital street improvement budget appropriation . . .”
Any Council member? Not the two sitting right there in front of him?
See Mr. Rascoe’s minutes at https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/CIP-Committee-Mtg-Minutes-latest-02-12-2019.pdf
No, Mr. Rascoe is not a member of the CIIP Committee, nor is he a member of the Town Council. But in taking it upon himself to suggest/recommend/propose—use whatever verb you’d like—the funding idea that Mr. Conners proposed by motion yesterday, he acted as both a committee member and a member of the Town Council.
The Beacon believes Mr. Rascoe inappropriately injected himself into both the CIIP Committee’s and the Town Council’s business and exceeded his authority, which is established and defined by N.C. statute. Nowhere in the enumeration of a town manager’s specific duties and powers, as set forth in N.C. General Statutes sec. 160A-148, is the controlling action that Mr. Rascoe took at the committee meeting authorized. (https://www.ncleg.gov/enactedlegislation/statutes/pdf/bysection/chapter_160a/gs_160a-148.pdf.)
UNASSIGNED FUND BALANCE
According to auditor Dowdy & Osborne, the Town’s General Fund (“GF”), which covers nearly all of the budgetary expenses, had an unassigned fund balance as of June 30, 2018 of $4,752,187. (These funds are also referred to as undesignated.) The auditor will provide an updated balance as of June 30, 2019.
The Town has three different funds: the General Fund, which includes monies to fund operations of the different Town departments (administration, public works, police, code enforcement), to purchase fire-protection services, and to pay for capital improvements; the Capital Reserve Fund (CRF), which Finance Officer Bonnie Swain has described as a “savings account for capital projects”; and the Cemetery Fund. Both the General Fund and the CRF have undesignated fund balances.
The Town Council has required by resolution that a minimum of $1.75 million be maintained in the GF’s unassigned fund balance for emergencies related to natural disasters. Mr. Rascoe informed the Council yesterday that the auditor has further advised the Town to maintain at least $3 million.
In yesterday’s discussions, Town Council members seemed to regard the $1.7 million in the unassigned fund balance over $3 million as readily available for projects, rather than as monies to be touched sparingly and only after careful deliberation of priorities in light of long-range planning.
The Beacon will report in more detail on the budget session within the next week. Mr. Rascoe is expected to incorporate the Town Council’s directives on the sidewalk appropriation and the building improvements, along with any other changes, into a proposed FY 2019-20 annual operating budget that he will submit to the Council at its May 7 meeting.
A public hearing on the proposed FY 2019-20 budget will be held June 4. The Town Council must adopt a budget no later than July 1, 2019, the first day of the 2019-20 fiscal year.
WRAPUP OF NONCONFORMING LOTS REVIEW
In other action yesterday, the Planning Board wrapped up its review of nonconforming lots by unanimously voting to add two new exceptions to a zoning text amendment (ZTA 18-09PB) that the Town Council rejected, 2-2, at its March 5 meeting. (Councilman Nason was recused because he designed the house that property owners propose to build on the nonconforming 50-foot-wide lot at 64 Ocean Blvd.)
The Planning Board approved amending ZTA 18-09PB, which provides exceptions for certain property owners to the nonconforming lots ordinance enacted last September, by adding exceptions for owners who 1) have lots that are less than 100 feet wide, but are at least 20,000 square feet in size or 2) hold title to nonconforming lots that are adjacent to lots owned by family members, provided their deeds were recorded before Sept. 5, 2018.
As Planning Board member Andy Ward described the Board’s action, it took the text of ZTA 18-09PB and added “outlier language.” Chairperson Elizabeth Morey said they were trying to “create more fairness,” not “favoritism.”
The Beacon has reported extensively since last spring about the sale and redevelopment of nonconforming lots in town, particularly 50-foot-wide lots on or near the oceanfront that once comprised developed 100-foot-wide parcels.
Since the town’s 1979 incorporation, the Town Code has regulated nonconforming lots to ensure that building lots conform to minimum dimensions and that the town’s low-density character is maintained. The regulations were codified in section 36-132.
After the Town interpreted the language of Town Code sec. 36-132, which is hardly crystal-clear, to allow some property owners to sell their 100-foot-wide parcels as two 50 footers—which were then developed by the buyers—the Town Council stepped in to replace the language of sec. 36-132 with new language that would unambiguously prevent this. The replacement language was enacted into law Sept. 5, 2018.
Subsequently, property owners complained about the harm that the new sec. 36-132 caused them, and the Town Council sought to amend the new ordinance by making equitable exceptions. The task of figuring out how fell to the Planning Board.
Before the five-member Board authorized drafting a new ZTA 18-09PB, Deputy Town Manager/Planning Director Wes Haskett presented the results of a survey of all nonconforming lots in town, which the Town Council directed the Planning Board to undertake.
Mr. Haskett reported that there are 3,037 total lots in Southern Shores, 846 of which—or about 28 percent—are less than 20,000 square feet in size. He also reported that, of the 3,037 lots, 241 of them, or about 8 percent, are 50-foot-wide lots that are part of parcels consisting of two or more lots. Mr. Haskett’s data show that of these 241 lots, 28 of them are vacant.
The 28 vacant lots represent less than 1 percent of the total number of lots in Southern Shores. Not surprisingly, they are in the map of Southern Shores that was first developed: the oceanfront-beach zone from 0 Ocean Blvd. north to East Dogwood Trail and the soundfront on North Dogwood Trail.
Mr. Haskett’s data, which he compiled with the help of Town Permit Officer Dabni Shelton and the Dare County Register of Deeds office, will be posted on the Town website soon, he said.
The Beacon will follow up with a report on the amended ZTA 18-09PB once it has been drafted. You may access ZTA 18-09PB here:
AND A FINAL NOTE ON RECYCLING: It was revealed during the budget work session that Bay Disposal & Recycling of Powells Point, which picks up our roadside recycling, is most likely dumping these items into a landfill—treating our recyclables as ordinary trash. Mr. McDonald mentioned this prospect, and other Town officials concurred with him. (Mayor Bennett also reported that homeowners are under-utilizing Bay Disposal’s so-called recycling service, thus costing the Town unnecessary expense.)
This appalling bit of news elicited no action from the Town Council and no definitive explanation from Mr. Rascoe, who did not dispute the allegation.
Southern Shores has always been ahead of other Outer Banks town on roadside recycling, at first supplying homeowners with blue plastic bins that we carried by hand.
If after so many decades we have reached the point where the roadside recycling service is an exercise in futility and misrepresentation, the Town should so inform us, and we should make other plans. Disposing of our recyclables in a landfill is unacceptable and more than a little depressing. Southern Shores residents deserve better.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 4/24/19