Troutman Council opposes several bills before legislature, looks at budget proposal
BY DEBBIE PAGE
At the beginning of its special meeting to discuss next year’s budget, Troutman Town Council member Jan Huffman asked to amend the meeting agenda to discuss three proposed N.C. legislative bills that could significantly hamper the operation and authority of municipalities in the state.
After hearing Huffman detail the bills, the council voted 5-0 to direct Town Manager Justin Longino draft a letter to local legislators expressing the council’s opposition to these bills.
“We can’t just rely on the League of Municipalities to speak for us. Local contact with lots of specific examples is more effective,” added Huffman.
Huffman said that these bills undermine local authority. The legislature cannot be aware of the landscape and vegetative buffer goals of various towns and cities. “These bills would do away with our ability to regulate," she said.
House Bill 675 proposes significant building code regulatory reform that makes numerous changes to building inspection laws. The bill mandates a two-day turnaround time to review residential building plans submitted under the seal of an engineer or architect and five days for residential plans submitted by other persons.
With only one person in the planning department and a contracted outside engineering firm, Troutman could not meet this turnaround time without hiring more personnel, according to Huffman.
This bill also prohibits cities from requiring developers to bury power lines under specifically listed circumstances and prohibits cities from requiring a minimum square footage for residential structures.
The town just completed an extensive rewrite of its Unified Development Ordinance, which would have to be rewritten again to meet these statute changes, said Huffman.
Senate Bill 367 seeks to “Clarify Property Owners' Rights.” This law, if passed, would prohibit cities and counties from regulating removal of trees on private property, including areas in a city's extra-territorial jurisdiction, unless given express authorization by the General Assembly.
The bill also states that no other general police powers may be cited by a city or county as their authority for regulating tree removal on private property. The bill also stipulates that the ordinance must include a provision granting private property owners the right to remove trees that interfere with a construction or renovation project, so long as they replace that tree with a sapling of a similar type.
Senate Bill 355 addresses Land-Use Regulatory Changes and makes significant changes to the process of resolving and litigating land use disputes. One of these changes includes an ability for a property owner to bypass the local board of adjustment and file an original action in superior or federal court.
This provision of the bill would greatly increase legal costs for towns across the state, added Huffman.
Another part of the bill allows the legal property owner to continue the development process while challenging a local government's development approval decision. These actions would not affect the property owner’s arguments in the legal proceeding.
The bill also changes the attorney fees statute to require an award of the property owner’s attorney's fees if the local government was found to have “violated a statute or case law setting forth unambiguous limits on its authority,” rather than leaving that decision to the discretion of the court.
This bill would also define the terms “development, “development approval," and “land development regulation,” all of which then apply to various land use statutes. This change would again require cities to undergo the cost of amending their UDOs.
The bill also adds language to the current “permit choice" statute to further define the circumstances under which a developer can choose between proceeding under a local government's old or new zoning or subdivision ordinances when the development proposal or approval is sought during an ordinance update process.
Mayor Pro Tem Paul Henkel, who presided over the meeting for Mayor Teross Young, expressed concern over this chipping away of municipalities’ regulatory authority. “Some towns may overdo regulation, but they shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Henkel suggested a more surgical approach to address those who are overstepping their authority without punishing everyone. “It’s very disheartening that a party that is supposed to be about hands-off control is pushing this," he said. "It’s very disappointing.”
Town Finance Director Steve Shealy projects that the town’s revenues should increase about 11.2 percent next year, mostly because of growth and an increase in the county’s property tax evaluations this year.
The town’s 2018-19 budget projected the town would receive $3,916,221 in revenue this fiscal year. However, Shealy’s projected final collection for this year will be just under $3.8 million. The town had collected $3,114,144 in revenue as of the end of February.
Shealy projects $4,272,018 in town revenue in the 2019-20 budget year.
BUDGET FIRST LOOK
Council members took a first look at Shealy’s proposed budget for 2019-20, created with Longino and staff department heads.
The town is in a strong financial position, with a 38 percent fund balance position, up from just 22 percent a few years ago. The state statute mandates an 8 percent level (enough to run the town for one month) but actually wants to see balance percentages at a minimum in the 20 percent range to proclaim a town’s financial health as adequate.
The council made building the fund balance a goal three years ago so that it would have financial strength and money to fund increasing town needs as projected growth arrived. The fund currently stands at about $1.4 million.
Longino said the proposed budget’s “numbers are based on valuation estimates from the Iredell County Tax Assessor and contain no increase in the tax rate or water/sewer rates.”
“For estimation purposes, we have budgeted a cumulative 5 percent increase for all employees,” said Longino. “This is the same as previous years and would break down as a 2 percent COLA (based on the Consumer Price Index) and up to 3 percent based on performance evaluations.”
“Again, for ease of budgeting, this 5 percent total is shown in the ‘Proposed Salary’ column but would not necessarily be the actual salary due to performance.”
Longino and Shealy also noted that a 15 percent increase in both the cost of employees’ insurance and the cost of retirement rates will raise costs for these areas for next year.
To begin the steps of implementing the Strategic Master Plan, Longino also increased funding in several areas in anticipation of associated projects. The Planning and Zoning budget was increased to include a $30,000 “Special Projects” line item to be used for sidewalks, small greenway improvements, studies, or other needed items.
“This really serves as a catch-all for anything that might come up that we would want to implement from the Strategic Master Plan,” said Longino.
In next year’s operating budget, Longino also requested $2,000 be allocated for industrial recruitment, $25,000 for downtown enhancement (murals, streetscaping, sidewalk repairs, etc.), and $180,000 in capital outlay dedicated to the purchase of property or right of way along Lytton Street or any other town land purchase.
Longino also increased the street sweeping and snow removal budgets slightly ($2,000 each) to cover new streets being added into the town’s control.
He estimated that $135,000 would be needed to cover the expected 2018 Street Improvement Project loan principal and interest costs. Construction is expected to start at the end of this year.
The police department budget request included the purchase of two new Ford Explorer SUVs to replace two 9-year old Crown Victorias, used by SROs, with over 100,000 miles each. The two new vehicles, costing about $80,000, would be placed on patrol, and two older patrol cars would be passed down to the SROs.
The Public Works Department requested a $60,000 F450 diesel dual-wheeled truck with a utility bed and a 5,000-pound hoist for pulling pump stations. Currently, the staff cannot pull pumps without outside help, which is not available at night and on the weekends.
The truck, which will also be used in daily maintenance and utility work, would replace a half-ton 2005 truck with 211,000 miles, according to Public Works Director Adam Lippard.
After council questions, Longino explained a large increase in the Planning and Zoning budget request for next year, rising from $272,705 this year to $362,367. Most of that increase is due to a $125,000 study of the Southwest bypass, $100,000 of which will be “rebated” through grant funds through the Charlotte Regional Transportation Planning Organization (CRPTO).
Council members also questioned a large increase in professional services, mostly for engineering work, in Planning and Zoning’s budget request. Shealy explained that the number of required construction plan reviews the town has received this year has increased exponentially.
The town budgeted $30,000 for these services this year but had already spent $50,793 as of the end of February. Shealy increased the line item to $75,000 for next fiscal year, which will also include the retainer fee to West Consulting.
Longino also explained the nearly $4,000 increase in requested training funds for town employees was because new council members may be elected this fall and because of planned training for Board of Adjustment and Planning and Zoning Board members.
CAPITAL RESERVE “SAVINGS” FUNDS
The budget plan also moves $70,000 into the Facilities Capital Reserve Fund, which currently stands at $60,070. This fund would help cover town facility improvements or additions. Use of these funds must be specifically approved by the council.
Longino also planned a $70,000 addition to the Economic Development Capital Reserve Fund, which also stands currently at $60,070. These funds are restricted to the use of any Economic Development-related activity or project and must be council approved expenditures.
Longino also proposes adding $10,000 to the industrial recruitment Capital Reserve Fund, which is currently at $20,000. These funds are restricted to the use of any industrial recruitment-related activity or project and must also be council approved.
A $100,000 addition to the Greenway Capital Reserve Fund was also suggested.
The council will continue its budget discussions over the next months, with a public hearing and final vote planned for its June council meeting.