2/13/21: TOWN COUNCIL TO CONSIDER CIVIL ENGINEERING FIRM FOR ROAD PAVEMENT SURVEY, CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT PLAN. Plus Some Streets Committee History.

The north end of Sea Oats Trail, pictured above at its intersection with Duck Road in September 2019, after Hurricane Dorian passed by the coast, is slated for rebuilding this year.

The Southern Shores Town Council will consider at its upcoming Tuesday morning workshop a recommendation by Town staff to hire a Raleigh civil engineering firm to perform a town-wide pavement condition survey and to develop an associated capital improvement plan for maintenance and repair of the roads.

The firm, SEPI Engineering & Construction, Inc. (“SEPI”), is one of nine that responded to a Request for Qualifications (“RFQ”) for Professional Engineering Services issued by the Town on Dec. 15, after the Town Council voted unanimously to put out an RFQ for an engineering survey of the town’s 37.6 miles of roads.

The last pavement condition survey was conducted in 2004 by the N.C. Institute for Transportation Research and Education, according to minutes from the Oct. 4, 2017,  inaugural meeting of the Capital Infrastructure Improvement Planning (CIIP) Committee, now known as the Streets Committee. (For committee history, see below.)

The Town Council’s workshop will be held at 9 a.m. in the Pitts Center, with the usual COVID-19-safety protocols in effect. You may view a livestream of the meeting on the Town’s You Tube website. There will be one public-comment period.

An RFQ proposal evaluation/selection committee consisting of Town Manager Cliff Ogburn, Deputy Town Manager Wes Haskett, Public Works Director David Bradley, and Town Engineer Joe Anlauf ranked SEPI No. 1 among all RFQ applicants, according to the packet for Tuesday’s meeting.

LaBella Associates, a Charlotte firm, came in second in the committee’s ranking, which was based on a quantitative scoring of four criteria that included company and personnel experience and qualifications. The committee also reportedly contacted and verified applicants’ references.

You may read about the committee’s evaluation and ranking process and review the RFQ proposals from SEPI and LaBella in the meeting packet: https://www.southernshores-nc.gov/wp-content/uploads/minutes-agendas-newsletters/Meeting-Packet_2021-02-16.pdf.

The Council’s consideration of the RFQ committee’s recommendations, which also address negotiations with SEPI (or another firm, if the Council chooses one) about the scope of the survey work and its cost, is the sole item of business on Tuesday’s agenda.

The selection of SEPI to serve as the road-survey engineer would appear to be a rubberstamp for the Town Council. According to its impressive RFQ proposal, SEPI provided engineering services to the Town of Nags Head in 2019, when Mr. Ogburn was town manager there, in order to develop its capital improvement plan. (See p. 12 of meeting packet.)

Founded in 2001, SEPI is a woman-owned business that has been recognized by the State of North Carolina as a Historically Underutilized Business (HUB), a designation that signifies its ownership by certain minorities, including women, is at least 51 percent.

The results of the pavement condition survey “will serve to better assist the Town in prioritizing street improvements based on a rational and consistent method of allocating limited resources,” Mr. Ogburn concludes in his agenda item summary, which is in the meeting packet.

We can’t argue with that. In fact, we welcome such an approach, after years of discretionary—and some would argue, biased—decision-making.

Reason, consistency, and objectivity need to be integrated into the Town’s decision-making about which street improvements will be done, why, and when.

We trust the Town Manager is aware of the 2004 survey and will have it to use for a comparative analysis, as well as for an assessment of how streets rebuilt during the past 17 years have held up.

A WORD ON THE HISTORY OF CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT PLANNING

After reading Mr. Ogburn’s agenda item summary for Tuesday’s meeting, we feel compelled to recall some town history on The Beacon record.

Before the formation in 2017 of the CIIP Committee, the town had a “Capital Improvement Plan Committee,” which was controlled by Mayor Tom Bennett with input from Town Manager Peter Rascoe, Town Engineer Joe Anlauf, former Public Works Director Rachel Patrick, another Council member selected by the Mayor, and two citizen representatives selected by the Mayor.

The other four members of the Town Council had no say in who served on this committee, as they did with the former CIIP Committee and do now with the Streets Committee. This committee’s meetings, several of which we observed, were essentially Town staff meetings, presided over by Mayor Bennett and attended by non-staff members whom he hand-picked.

The 2015-16 minutes from the Capital Improvement Plan Committee are on the Town website. In 2015, current Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Morey served on it, at the Mayor’s invitation, as did current Town Councilman Jim Conners.

Ms. Morey eventually resigned; Mr. Conners has served on every capital improvements committee since 2015, first as a citizen representative selected by the Mayor and later, since his November 2017 election to the Council, as a co-chairman. 

The Capital Improvement Plan Committee of 2015-17 identified the streets that needed improvement, purportedly based on first-hand observations—but residents’ personal requests also held sway, the minutes make clear—and then prioritized them. Streets that showed tree root upheaval and cracking and had stormwater drainage problems reportedly received the committee’s attention.

The process was decidedly informal and subjective. The Town Council as a whole did little more than approve the committee’s recommendations.

When this discretionary process resulted in a 2015 decision to destroy dozens of large trees lining the west end of Fairway Drive, which is a dead-end street off of South Dogwood Trail that the committee identified for rebuilding, the public became involved in it. Intense public protest also greeted the committee/staff/Council decision to re-do the intersection of South, North, and East Dogwood trails, a project that destroyed more large, old trees.    

Three Town Council members who allowed these “improvements” to occur, despite considerable public opposition, lost their bids for re-election in November 2015.

It took another two years, however, before the Mayor’s Capital Improvement Plan Committee was replaced by the CIIP Committee, which has five citizen-members on it, each appointed by a Council member, in addition to two Council co-chairs.

Until the CIIP Committee appointments of January 2020, Mayor Bennett controlled this committee as a co-chairman, and selected the co-chair who would serve with him.

The CIIP Committee inherited a priority list of the target street projects identified by the previous committee.

Former Town Manager Peter Rascoe and/or Town Engineer Anlauf typically ran the CIIP meetings for Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Rascoe recorded the meeting minutes.

The CIIP committee has been re-conceptualized by the new Town Council as an entity referred to variously as the Streets Committee or the Streets Improvement Committee. It is co-chaired by Councilman Conners and Councilman Matt Neal.

It is unclear to The Beacon what the Streets Committee’s purpose and value are. The committee’s decision at its Jan. 21 meeting not to move forward in the current fiscal year with the postponed Sea Oats Trail improvement project was ignored by a unanimous Town Council at its Feb. 2 meeting. 

Further, no minutes of the committee’s meetings are being reported, even though it is an official committee of the Town Council. This has to change. There is no excuse for the Town failing to keep and post minutes from this committee. It is ignoring the public record—something no government should ever do. 

The Budget for Capital Improvements

Since the Town’s fiscal year 2018-19 budget, the annual capital improvements budget has been determined by a set-aside of five cents of the Town property tax rate, which in FY 2018-19 and FY 2019-20 was 22 cents on every $100 of assessed property value.

The Town Council unanimously approved the five-cent policy at a Feb. 20, 2018 strategic planning workshop, upon motion by then-Councilman Gary McDonald, who observed that the Town always had insufficient funds budgeted for capital projects.

In FY 2018-19, the five-cent, set-aside revenue came to $654,870; in FY 2019-20, it was $662,340.

The Town Council eliminated capital improvements in the FY 2020-21 budget because of concerns over a revenue shortfall during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In voting recently to proceed with the Sea Oats Trail rebuild—from Eleventh Avenue to Duck Road—the Town Council approved funding the project with monies from the Town’s Unassigned Fund Balance, not from a capital budget.

Before the five-cent policy took effect, the annual capital improvement budget was determined by Town staff, including the Public Works Director, the Finance Director, and the Town Manager, and then approved by the Town Council upon its recommendation.

In FY 17-18, the budget appropriation for capital projects was $575,000. In FY 2016-17 and 2015-16, it was $516,000. (We believe these figures were derived from a set-aside of four cents from the then-current tax rate, but we can only confirm through capital improvement committee minutes that the FY 2016-17 budget appropriation was.)

Mr. McDonald told The Beacon in an email yesterday that he regretted not choosing a higher set-aside than five cents.

The former Councilman, whose term expired in 2019, sought to increase the annual budgetary amount for improvements a year later by using a different formula, but a 3-2 Council majority did not agree with what he proposed and did not deem it necessary to increase the tax set-aside.

Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 2/13/21

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