The Town Council appeared at its budget workshop yesterday to authorize a line item in the fiscal year 2021-22 Town budget of about $50,000 to cover the costs of mitigating summertime cut-thru traffic, while also supporting eight no-left-turn weekends.
We say “appeared” because the Town Council did not vote on funding for traffic-control measures in FY 2021-22. It did, however, unanimously approve an expenditure of $14,600 in the current fiscal year to purchase five new roadside traffic counters/monitors, which would be placed on Wax Myrtle, Sea Oats, Hillcrest, and Hickory trails.
There would be two monitors on Wax Myrtle Trail, one on either side of its intersection with East Dogwood Trail, according to Town Manager Cliff Ogburn.
(Installation of monitors on these four streets was among the nine suggestions made to the Town Council last June by the citizens’ Exploratory Committee to Address Cut-Thru Traffic about implementing the no-left-turn prohibitions. The committee also thought a counter at Ocean Boulevard after the Duck Road split was advisable.)
Like the monitors currently in place around Southern Shores, the new ones would register the speed of passing vehicles, as well as record the number of vehicles. In discussing their purchase, Mayor Pro Tem Elizabeth Morey extolled the value of the monitors as a deterrent to speeding, which is a common complaint of residents in the dunes.
After the meeting, The Beacon spoke further with Mr. Ogburn and learned that a proposal to install “Local Traffic Only” signs and barricades in the northbound lanes of Wax Myrtle, Sea Oats, Hillcrest, and Hickory trails at their intersection with East Dogwood Trail is in the works.
The physical barricades would be installed on each street just north of East Dogwood Trail. Northbound local traffic would be able to pass in the southbound lane, Mr. Ogburn explained.
The Town Council is expected to take up this proposal, prepared by Mr. Ogburn with assistance from Police Chief David Kole, at another budget meeting. The Town Manager confirmed that the Town Council is aware of it.
Yesterday’s workshop was principally for the purpose of giving Mr. Ogburn guidance in prioritizing Town expenditures as he seeks to balance the FY 2021-22 budget, which he preliminarily has calculated as falling short by more than $800,000. (See The Beacon, 3/14/21, for background.) The figure of $50,000 for traffic-mitigation expenses was proffered by Councilman Matt Neal.
During a discussion about the seasonal cut-thru traffic led by Mr. Neal, the Town Council showed support for prohibiting the left turn on to South Dogwood Trail from U.S. Hwy. 158 over eight weekends, starting in June. Any expenses incurred in June would come out of the Town’s FY 2020-21 budget, not next year’s budget.
According to Finance Officer Bonnie Swain, the Town spent between $21,000 and $24,000 last summer on no-left-turn weekend prohibitions, which were monitored by Southern Shores police officers.
Mr. Ogburn said that the per-weekend cost for the left-turn prohibition if the intersection were not staffed by police would be $3700.
Mr. Neal indicated in his remarks that Mr. Ogburn is “trying to figure out how to do it less expensively with other government agency help,” but neither the Councilman nor the Town Manager elaborated on the form of this potential help.
Although both the traffic-engineering consultant’s report and the report of the Exploratory Committee to Address Cut-Thru Traffic recommended the installation of a gate on South Dogwood Trail to prevent cut-thru traffic from entering the residential areas, the Town Council did not discuss this option. A gate is not part of Mr. Ogburn’s proposal.
The citizens’ committee, however, did recommend the use of “Local Traffic Only” signs, or other prohibitive signage, at the entry to residential streets used by motorists who jump off of the Hwy. 158 and N.C. Hwy. 12 thoroughfares
Yesterday Mr. Neal described the installation of any “temporary barrier” to traffic or other “hardened structure” to cut off traffic in town other than at South Dogwood Trail-Hwy. 158 as “the big outlier” in the Council’s decision-making, and “we don’t need to sketch that out now.”
Mayor Tom Bennett said he would like to see how well the eight no-left-turn weekends work, and if they don’t, “try something else.”
(See The Beacon, 3/11/21, for background.)
Town Councilman Jim Conners notably expressed hostility toward the citizens’ exploratory committee, making a motion to “disband it.” Mr. Conners’s motion did not receive a second, however, and was viewed by his colleagues as inappropriate for a budget workshop.
He also complained about the committee’s report being sent to the Town Manager at 11:30 p.m. Monday, calling the timing “beyond the pale.”
“I’m pretty much over the cut-thru traffic committee,” Mr. Conners said.
Mr. Neal, who is one of the co-advisers/sponsors of the cut-thru traffic committee, took responsibility for not briefing the Councilman on the committee’s report, which was submitted verbally at a meeting last Thursday. Both he and the committee’s other co-sponsor, Ms. Morey, told chairperson Tommy Karole at that meeting that he could file the written report after yesterday’s workshop.
Curiously, when the Town Council later discussed the possibility of raising the ad valorem tax rate for FY 2021-22, Mr. Conners suggested, “We could cut out any cut-thru traffic mitigation” to save on expense. But a savings of $50,000 clearly would not affect the need for a tax increase.
The Council did not reach a consensus on raising taxes to fund the Town’s general operations, exclusive of beach nourishment. This discussion will be continued at another budget workshop.
Both Mr. Neal and Councilman Leo Holland expressed a preference for not raising the tax rate, which is currently 19.58 cents on $100 of property value.
The current tax rate is a “revenue-neutral” rate that went into effect in FY 2020-21 after Dare County conducted its property reevaluation. The revenue-neutral rate is designed to keep property owners’ taxes at the same level, even though the assessed value of their properties has increased. It is viewed as a temporary stopgap.
In discussing a possible tax-rate increase, Mr. Neal said, “I don’t like monumental change. I like incremental change.” He stated his “first goal” was “to do without a tax increase” in FY 2021-22.
Mr. Holland said he was mindful of financial adversity experienced by people during the COVID-19 pandemic and did not think the tax rate should be raised now.
Mayor Bennett, Ms. Morey, and Mr. Conners all showed interest in raising the tax rate by one or two cents.
“I would not be averse to a 2-cent increase this year,” the Mayor said.
Ann G. Sjoerdsma, 3/17/21