11/6/20: U.S. 158 ROADWORK EXPECTED TO BE DONE BY NOV. 25; TOWN COUNCIL HAS LOW-KEY 47-MINUTE MEETING OF PREDICTABLE VOTES, NOTHING NEW FOR PUBLIC.

Roadwork at the U.S. Hwy. 158 and N.C. Hwy. 12 intersection, looking west.

The repaving of U.S. Hwy. 158 is expected to be completed by Nov. 25, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Southern Shores Town Manager Cliff Ogburn reported to the Town Council Wednesday evening in a meeting that lasted only 47 minutes and may have been dampened by an election hangover.

Or perhaps the relentlessly bad news about COVID-19, and the fact that the meeting had no in-person audience, cast a lethargic pall over the proceedings. The Town Council had a decidedly low-key session with little give-and-take among themselves or with staff. We view such as a meeting as a lost opportunity to communicate with, and inform, the public, which is unseen, but still present.

Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Morey did address the COVID-19 situation locally in a general sense, at the end of the meeting, as she did at a previous meeting, saying “It’s starting to hit close to home” and asking people to be “vigilant.”

Mayor Tom Bennett reinforced Ms. Morey’s message with more specific direction, advising, “Don’t leave your mask at home and don’t leave yourself vulnerable, if you can possibly help it.”

We also commend all of the Town Council members and the Town staff for wearing facial coverings throughout the meeting, including when they were speaking. Only the Town Manager let down a bit in the latter regard, and we are uncertain about how William Norrell, who substituted for Town Attorney Ben Gallop, appeared because his face was blocked by an overhead monitor on the live-stream video we viewed. (Thank you, Mr. Ogburn, for introducing him.)

Not only does wearing masks show mindfulness about how COVID-19 spreads, it models respectful, safe, and conscientious behavior.

[UPDATE SINCE OUR EARLIER POST: North Carolina today broke its previous single-day record of 2,885 COVID-19 cases, with 2,908 newly reported COVID-19 cases, according to the N.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services dashboard. While we were writing this report, the Dare County HHS department updated its dashboard with eight more COVID-19-positive cases, seven of them local residents.]  

In considering what to write about the Council’s regular November meeting, we decided that the most useful news to impart was Mr. Ogburn’s announcement of a deadline for the bypass roadwork, which initially had people delayed an hour in getting across the Wright Memorial Bridge.

The Town Manager said that the resurfacing project was actually ahead of schedule, but work at the main intersection at the Welcome Center (pictured above) may lag a bit behind.

You also might be interested to know that the Town issued the highest number of permits this year last month when it issued 66, according to Planning Director and Deputy Town Manager Wes Haskett, who said there is “a lot going on in town right now, development-wise.”

Twenty-nine of the permits were building permits, Mr. Haskett said, and 21 were trade permits.

The Council approved the appointment of Janis Collins, a fairly new Chicahauk homeowner, to the Planning Board as the second alternate, but it did so in what we consider lackluster fashion. Mr. Haskett proposed the appointment without giving any biographical details about Ms. Collins, and the Council did not thank Ms. Collins or welcome her to government service.

Perhaps with an actual audience, they would have been more mindful of the occasion. Every Town Council meeting is an opportunity for the Council members and the staff to speak directly to the public, as well as the creation of a public record for historical purposes.

We wish to thank Ms. Collins, whom we do not know, for volunteering to serve as an alternate on the Planning Board, which plays a very important role in the Town’s development future—if it ever meets again. The five-member Planning Board also serves as the Town’s Board of Adjustment.    

Mr. Haskett did not give an update on the CodeWright Town Code rewrite project, which he told us a month ago was back in CodeWright’s court—Town Attorney Ben Gallop having finally critiqued the proposed changes to the zoning chapter of the Code.

BEACH NOURISHMENT MONIES; UNASSIGNED FUNDS

Perhaps the most momentous decision the Council made Wednesday evening was to resolve unanimously that the Town will not pay for any capital expenditures incurred during its 2022 beach-nourishment project “with funds currently on hand.”  

This would include monies in the Town’s general fund, which annually receives at least $2 million in revenue from occupancy, sales, and land-transfer taxes, more than $3 million from ad valorem taxes, and another $1 million in assorted other revenues, as well as the multi-million-dollar surplus in the Unassigned Fund Balance.

“The general fund isn’t paying for any portion” of the project, Mr. Ogburn said.

All of the expenses that the Town is currently paying for the as-yet-undefined beach-nourishment project will be “recaptured” in the “borrowing,” he said in explaining Resolution 2020-11-01, which declares the Town’s intent to reimburse itself, up to a maximum of $10 million.

In the “borrowing” presumably means that Southern Shores property owners primarily will be footing the bill with increased taxes.

The resolution that the Council approved appears on its face to be a perfunctory bit of business, undertaken in compliance with N.C. Treasury regulations, but its import and necessity should have been explained to the public by Mr. Ogburn or Town Finance Director Bonnie Swain.

The public also deserves a financial update about the 2022 project. The Town Council unanimously approved in the spring “pursuing” a beach-nourishment project—without choosing one of the options recommended by its coastal engineering consultant–and authorized spending money to hire a financial consultant, but it has not informed the public of the financing plan.

In a summary accompanying the reimbursement resolution, the Town Manager estimated the project costs to be $16,196,500. Is that total in today’s dollars or in yesterday’s dollars, as estimated by Ken Willson of Coastal Protection and Engineering of N.C., formerly known as APTIM? Will tomorrow’s dollars be the same?

How much of that $16 million-plus has Dare County pledged to contribute? How much will Southern Shores property owners be paying in increased taxes, and when will the Town inform them? How will the $1.4 million state grant that the Town just received be used?

Dare County Manager Bobby Outten has said previously that $7 to $7.5 million from the county’s beach nourishment fund, which is financed by occupancy taxes, might be available for the Southern Shores project, but the actual contribution has not been publicly announced. Has the county made a commitment?

All we ever hear at Town Council meetings is how much Mr. Willson is billing the Town for project permitting and design “tasks.” The overall project has yet to be brought into focus.

Also seeming to be important was the Town Council’s unanimous decision Wednesday to amend Town policy on the Unassigned (or Undesignated, or Unreserved) Fund Balance to specify that the minimum balance that must be maintained is now $3 million, an increase of $1.25 million, and to include some broad language about the fund’s purpose being for emergencies.

Councilman Matt Neal astutely pointed out that when the resolution establishing a $1.75 million minimum balance in the fund was approved in 2012, during Hal Denny’s tenure as mayor, it contained the proviso that the Town Council annually review the policy. Needless to say, such review has not occurred.

Thanks to Mr. Neal, the Council approved the changes in the policy with the understanding that it would revisit the policy in a year, thus safeguarding the Town from the “unforeseeable.”

***  

The most confusing decision the Council made Wednesday occurred within the first five minutes of the meeting when Mayor Bennett seemed to move twice to amend the consent agenda–by eliminating one of the four items in the agenda–without ever soliciting approval of the amended agenda. Or he did, but then he didn’t.

You can watch the videotape and be the judge as to what the Council members passed by vote: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4cSvr0KtRY The Mayor misspoke, and no one corrected him.

The consent agenda contained four FY 2020-21 budget amendments, which The Beacon highlighted in a report 11/1/2, for: 1) $43,521 to hire and fund a new police officer for six months; 2) $5800 to redesign and modernize the Town’s website; 3) $250,000 to set up a beach nourishment fund; and 4) $8,000 to pay for cemetery maintenance.

After Mr. Ogburn asked the Council to move the cemetery fund request to new business, the consent agenda was “amended” to just three budget amendments, which the Council may or may not have approved unanimously. Certainly, its intent was to do so, but the Mayor actually pronounced one motion to have been approved twice.

The funds for all of these amendments are being transferred out of the Town’s Unassigned Fund Balance, which, as of June 30, had a shade under $6 million in it.

The Town maintains a separate cemetery fund, which, according to Mr. Ogburn, has $58,000 in it.

The Public Works Dept. had asked that $8,000 from this fund be appropriated for replacing stone in the driveway, grinding some tree stumps, and repairing some markers at the cemetery.

Mr. Ogburn amended this amount to $2,000, deleting from the budget request monies for the driveway resurfacing. The Town Council approved this lesser amount.

On a personal note, and speaking as a frequent visitor to the cemetery, I am more concerned about the grounds being kept free of tree debris and litter than I am about the condition of the driveway. A dirt road enhances the rustic look of the cemetery, which is part of its appeal to me.

***

The Town Council has canceled its Nov. 17 workshop session. When it meets Dec. 1, we hope to hear updates on both the CodeWright project and the traffic study.

From our perspective, there is even now too much cut-through traffic on the Town’s residential streets. Council members and Town staff should inform themselves by observing a week-day morning cut-through rush at the South Dogwood-East Dogwood trails and East Dogwood-Hickory trails intersections. There is an afternoon rush, too, but it is not as heavy.

The character of Southern Shores is being seriously compromised year-round by excessive traffic.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 11/6/20

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