About three hours into the videotape of last week’s Town Council budget workshop, Interim Town Manager Wes Haskett again asked for ideas on how to balance the budget.
By the time Mr. Haskett reopened this discussion, Mayor Tom Bennett had already suggested covering the shortfall with money from the undesignated fund balance; and Town Councilman Matt Neal had laid out in detail his analysis, which took into account all relevant factors, including what Finance Officer Bonnie Swain called “a worst-case scenario” of a nearly $600,000 shortfall in tax revenues for the current fiscal year.
Mr. Neal proposed deducting the budget shortfall of $348,853 from the $662,340 allocated for FY 2020-21 infrastructure projects.
He also proposed additional expenses that would need to be deducted, such as money to cover six months of salary for a new full-time building inspector/code enforcement officer, who would be hired in December. (Benefits for this employee were not considered.)
What we believe Mr. Haskett should have done was to summarize what had been suggested by the Mayor and Mr. Neal and ask if anyone would like to make a motion. There had been ample time for budget-balancing ideas. His open-ended question only led to more confusion
Since yesterday’s Part One post on delving into the budget workshop, we have had time to hear, absorb, and ponder exactly what Mr. Haskett said about proposed beach nourishment costs after he reopened this discussion, and we have to wonder: What is the point in balancing the budget NOW?
We will get to the beach-nourishment cost zingers later. First, we would like to continue with the Council’s budget-shortfall discussions.
(We say “into the videotape” because the tape does not reflect real time. The meeting actually had run longer than three hours. You may view the videotape here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIsG7Y-9bvk&feature=youtu.be.)
In response to Mr. Haskett, Mayor Bennett said, “As I said earlier, I’m comfortable taking [the budget deficit] out of our line-item for capital improvements and off-setting that with monies as they come in back into the fund balance.”
This confusing and untrue statement—the Mayor had said nothing earlier about deducting monies from the infrastructure project budget—drew a quick response from Ms. Swain, who restated it with considerably more detail.
After she did, Councilman Jim Conners said: “I’d like to make that motion.”
At this point, we think Mr. Neal was probably wondering how he had wandered into a “Twilight Zone” episode. He said something to Mr. Conners that is inaudible on the tape, but it concluded with a request that Mr. Conners “go ahead” with the motion.
“Oh,” said Mr. Conners, “I got to repeat all that?”
Yes, Councilman, you have to state motions. That is part of the job.
Mr. Conners then made a simple motion to balance the budget by deducting the shortfall from next year’s capital-improvement project appropriation, and Councilman Leo Holland seconded it. When the Mayor asked if there was any further discussion, Mr. Neal gamely stepped up again, saying he still saw $150,000 “unaccounted for.”
WHAT A FINE MESS
We feel Mr. Neal’s pain. We experienced our own in trying to make sense of last Tuesday’s muddled budget discussions, which we are trying gamely now to represent to you, dear readers. Even after listening to the videotape, we feel shock and bewilderment.
Returning to the chronology, Councilman Neal mentioned again the $35,000 expense for the new building inspector, $35,000 for a one-time staff bonus, and a $45,000 police grant that, if it did not come through—and a half-hour later, Ms. Swain announced that it had not—would leave the police department budget with a $45,000 deficit.
Eventually, after a lengthy discussion, Mr. Conners’s motion was amended to include a further $70,000 expense to be deducted from the infrastructure appropriation, to cover the building inspector’s salary and the staff bonus. The motion passed unanimously.
Before this occurred, however, the Mayor indicated within less than five minutes after Mr. Conners made his motion that “I’m not sure what [the motion] was now,” and when he called for a vote, he did not restate the motion. He made a habit of doing this during the workshop because he clearly could not remember the motions.
Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Morey had asked for clarification of Mr. Conners’s motion and the amendments, and Town Clerk Sheila Kane restated them. When Mayor Bennett called for a vote, he described the motion simply as being what “Sheila read to us.”
The Beacon wonders how much longer the Town Council will overlook and cover for the Mayor’s obvious memory and processing difficulties.
We are not unsympathetic, but the problem is there, and it is not going to improve.
Going back to the police grant . . . Thirty minutes later, in the middle of a discussion about applying for beach nourishment grants, Ms. Swain announced that she had heard from Police Chief David Kole that the police grant had fallen through, and the Finance Officer wanted to know what the Council would like her to do about that.
There was a motion on the floor that had been seconded about applying for beach nourishment grants when Ms. Swain interrupted to ask how the Council would like her to “cover” the $45,000 shortfall. (Remember, Mr. Neal was going to account for it by deducting from the FY 2020-21 infrastructure appropriation.)
Before calling a vote on the previous motion, which Ms. Morey had made, the Mayor made a motion to take the $45,000 out of the undesignated fund balance, which he corrected to the line-item infrastructure appropriation, when prompted by Mr. Neal.
This motion never came to a vote. When Ms. Kane asked the Mayor to repeat it, he could not. When he finally called Ms. Morey’s motion to a vote, he described it simply as “to do what Elizabeth suggested.”
I will not belabor this point—I could give many examples of the Mayor’s lapses—but I feel compelled to say that there is a problem here that needs addressing, with care and thoughtfulness
I have many years of experience as an elder caregiver, and I can say with confidence that truly kind people do not look the other way. They do not make excuses. There is also a responsibility to the public to consider.
MUDDLED THINKING, DECISION-MAKING
After watching the videotape, The Beacon can say with certainty that every discussion the Town Council had about an important substantive issue was confused and jumbled.
BEACH NOURISHMENT: Take the beach nourishment grants that are available through the N.C. Dept. of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Resources (DWR).
Mr. Haskett should have opened this discussion by informing the Council that the N.C. General Assembly has allocated a total of $11.5 million to DWR’s Coastal Storm Damage Mitigation Fund to be used for beach-mitigation project grants not to exceed $2.5 million for a local government during the 2019-21 fiscal biennium.
Knowing the total amount of money available would have been useful information for the Council.
Mr. Haskett also should have informed the Council about what is required in an application.
The Council dealt with this grant as if it could, as the Mayor said, “pick a number” for a beach nourishment project—he suggested a round $15 million—without having a specific beach nourishment plan in mind.
We believe Mr. Haskett was deliberately vague and misled the Council, intentionally or otherwise.
The grant guidelines clearly state that an applicant must submit maps, a project site plan, engineering studies, and further “technical” details of a REAL project, including:
“all permit applications and issued permits that relate to the project.”
That is what the guidelines specify. They also state that “The applicant has an ongoing obligation to provide to DWR copies of permit applications and issued permits as promptly as possible.”
Inasmuch as the Town Council has not approved of, or funded, a beach-nourishment project, it cannot possibly submit permits for one.
It also would be relevant to know that after DWR issues an “award notice,” the applicant must enter into a grant contract with N.C. DEQ. The scope of the project, as well as all of the necessary site plans, engineering studies, permits, etc., etc., would be part of that contract.
Big Costs Now: But wait! Just before Mr. Haskett brought up the grant applications, he advised the Council that the top two coastal-engineering companies that had responded to the RFQ (request for qualifications) released by Duck for a coastal-engineering coordinator/consultant would soon be submitting their proposals for estimated costs.
The towns of Southern Shores, Kitty Hawk, and Kill Devil Hills all signed on to this RFQ, but our Town Council did so with the understanding that it was not making a commitment. It could always back out. Uh-huh.
Now Mr. Haskett was saying that if the Town continued to participate in this joint-coordinating effort, it would be paying monies to the consultant next month for beach profiles and surveys that would be done in FY 2020-21. These unspecified monies would be covered in a budget amendment next month, he said.
He also said that “they” had submitted a $450,000 proposal for permitting and design for Southern Shores’ 2022 beach nourishment, and that this money, too, would need to be appropriated by a budget amendment—apparently, in this fiscal year. We have no idea whom he meant by they. The coastal engineering consultant/coordinator?
Mr. Haskett said that Dare County would pay $250,000 of the $450,000, but the Town would pay the rest.
No one mentioned that the Town has not yet approved a project. In fact, we doubt the Council even followed what Mr. Haskett was saying, and we fault him for bringing up such an important matter for the first time in the course of the only budget workshop that the Council will have.
In retrospect, we now see that without these profiles, surveys, permitting and design work, a grant application cannot be done.
The discussion that the Council had about which beach-nourishment plan option to propose for a grant was absurd. There currently is no project; there is just the suggestion of a project. Mayor Bennett twice said about beach nourishment when discussing a grant that “We haven’t made a decision on that yet.”
Ultimately, Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Morey made a motion that APTIM, which may be the coastal engineering coordinator selected by the towns, prepare two grant applications for two beach nourishment projects, for which it would be paid $4970.
She directed that the one project would be renourishment of the Pelican Watch oceanfront area, for which no engineering studies, site plans, permits, etc., are currently in hand. As for the other, she directed Mr. Haskett to “use option four [$14,755,600] as the basis for our grant application,” clearly stating that the Council was not approving that option.
The motion passed unanimously.
The State of North Carolina is not going to give $2.5 million for a theoretical or fantasy project—one that the Town may approve or may not approve.
How will the Council respond when beach-nourishment budget amendments come before it next month and in June? Mr. Haskett said that the permitting and designs “numbers” for the Town’s 2022 project will not be available until late May.
During the Council’s pick-a-number/pick-an-option discussion, Ms. Swain pointed out that if special obligation bonds are used to finance an eventual beach nourishment project, they would be backed by the Town’s occupancy and sales tax revenues, which are anything but certain now.
The Beacon believes beach nourishment has become a fine mess that the Town Council needs to hold a special public meeting with its Interim Town Manager to sort out.
NO-LEFT TURNS: More muddled thinking emerged in the discussion on implementing no-left turn weekends this summer.
Councilman Conners started with an apples-and-oranges analysis, saying, “I think that if we pull Dewberry Lane [a road rebuild costing $85,000], we should pull the no-left-turn monies,” which Mr. Haskett said would cost $6500 per weekend.
What one has to do with the other, we cannot imagine, but we can point out that the monies for three NLT weekends would be less than one-quarter of the monies paid for the road rebuild, and that the NLT weekends would benefit hundreds of homeowners instead of just the few who live on the Dewberry Lane cul de sac.
We call this muddled thinking. Mr. Conners then compounded it by doing a 180, suggesting that the Council allocate the $6500/weekend and then do an assessment, withdrawing the monies, later, if it thought wise to do so.
It was at this point that the Mayor sought to get Mr. Conners to make a motion to take the NLT weekends off of the table, and Mr. Conners decided to “back out of the discussion” altogether, deferring to others.
Mayor Pro Tem Morey, who is one of the Town Council sponsors of the Southern Shores Cut-Through Traffic Committee, suggested leaving the $20,000 appropriation out of the FY 2020-21 budget because of a likely lack of “decent traffic” this summer. Never mind what a godsend it would be to people on the cut-through route if, in fact, vacationers do return in numbers. A $20,000 appropriation would hardly break the bank.
Despite several public hearings during the past year in which many residents appealed for help with summertime traffic, Mr. Neal, who is another Council sponsor of the committee, and Ms. Morey view any turn prohibition this summer as simply a test.
They are focused on determining how much traffic would travel on South Dogwood Trail and other alternate bail-out roads (Juniper Trail, in particular), if the left turn at U.S. Hwy. 158/South Dogwood Trail were blocked.
The Beacon can assure them that the NLT weekends this summer mean much more to residents than just an opportunity for traffic counting. We are very disappointed that, according to Ms. Morey, Tommy Karole, the chairperson of the Cut-Through Traffic Committee, recommended that a budget appropriation not be made this summer. We believe monies should be in the budget.
Fortunately, Mr. Neal stepped up again with another reasonable proposition. He made a motion to put the NLT weekend budget item on the Council’s June 1 meeting agenda and to make a decision then. This motion passed unanimously.
The Council would do well to remember that it can change the FY 2020-21 budget up until June 30.
ENGINEERING CONTRACT TO BE BID OUT
We will hold for another day the Town Council’s decision-making, or lack thereof, on a new recycling contract. We have to contact N.C. DEQ before we can report properly—plus, we have already written too much for one blog.
We will finish today by reporting that the Council decided to bid out the Town’s engineering consultant contract, which expires June 30, after Mayor Bennett first made a motion to extend it for a year. Mr. Conners seconded the Mayor’s motion.
Deel Engineering, PLLC, entered into a contract with the Town for three years, starting in June 2016, and the Town Council, by a 3-2 vote, extended that contract last year for another year.
Although owner David Deel signed the contract, it is Joe Anlauf, who is an associate of Deel’s, not an employee, who actually does the Town’s engineering work. He is often referred to as the “Town Engineer.”
Ms. Morey objected to another year’s contract extension, saying, “I would like to bid it out and see what kind of interest we have from other engineers.”
Mr. Neal agreed with her, and then Mr. Holland showed support, so the Mayor withdrew his motion.
In yet another muddled move, the vote on Ms. Morey’s motion was 4-0, with Mr. Conners abstaining—although not noticeably so because all votes were by voice, not by hand-raising.
Mr. Conners explained that he had abstained because Ms. Morey had asked for an RFQ to be released by the Town, not an RFP (request for proposal). He failed to explain, however, why he did not bring up this distinction during the motion discussion.
All Council members said they wanted the RFQ to include a proposal of fees, and that was the understanding conveyed to Mr. Haskett.
And finally, we would feel remiss if we did not mention that Mayor Bennett brought up widening South Dogwood Trail, in light of encroachment by the new sidewalk, to get it up to “maximum width.”
He brought this matter up during the line-item examination of the public works budget, which was an inappropriate time to address it, and it did not go any further.
Next: the future of recycling in Southern Shores.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 4/27/20