WHITE LAKE — There was an atmosphere of relaxation as the Elizabethtown Town Council met Tuesday for its annual budget retreat at White Lake Town Hall. The Town Council met to jump-start the budget process that began by procuring a wish list from various heads of department.
The meeting opened with the State of the Town address from Mayor Sylvia Campbell, who briefly reflected on accomplishments during the previous budget year and outlined goals for the coming year.
“There’s not another town in North Carolina like (Elizabethown),” she said. “We’re sitting on a pot of gold here. I see new things we’re doing and the way we’re growing, and we’re just bustling with activity.”
Finance Director Jay Leatherman presented a detailed report of revenue and expenditures. The actual revenue in the general fund was $4,372,535, and $1,467,174 was brought in through the water fund in fiscal year 2015. Revenue for the fiscal year 2016 is expected to be $4,640,662 for the general fund and $1,541,937 for the water fund.
Total expenditures for fiscal year 2015 included $4,358,391 from the general fund and $1,033,669 from the water fund. Total expenditures for fiscal year 2016 are projected to be $4,843,299 from the general fund and $1,288,809 from the water fund.
Leatherman informed the board that his office is currently utilizing attorney Whitley Ward to collect multi-year delinquent taxes exceeding $600.
Director of Public Works Pat DeVane told the committee things would be changing regarding the Water and Sewer Division, changes that were coming down from the General Assembly. In the past, grants have been available to help offset costs incurred in water and wastewater management. Those grants are now going to be handed out based on local water rates and the amount of debt per connection, both of which are low in Elizabethtown.
According to the new guidelines, Elizabethtown’s rates are too low and the town will not qualify for grants for water and sewer unless rates are increased. Without grants, DeVane said water and sewer rates will have to be increased in order to sustain the department. Water rates would have to be raised from $19.58 to $33 to qualify for grants, and sewer rates would have to be raised from $27.41 to $33 for eligibility. DeVane stated that Elizabethtown’s current water rate of less than $20 puts its water division in the lowest eight percent with regard to cost.
Board members were not receptive to making large rate changes and discussed adjusting water rates at an amount equal to the standard cost of living increase each year.
DeVane also asked for one new position to be added to the street department, stating that he would like to do more work in-house rather than contracting it out. He added that when he began with the Public Works Department, 10 people were doing the work currently being done by eight.
Fire Chief Nick West reported that the fire department responded to 1,140 calls in 2015, or 3.5 per day, an increase of 12 percent from the previous year. Goals for the department include implementing effective staffing levels to cover a service gap on nights and weekends, completing 100 percent of fire inspections, lowering insurance rates, increasing community involvement and visibility, replacing outdated equipment, and increasing department-wide training, among other things. West said that a new customized fire truck should be arriving in April. He requested five additional personnel to cover the night and weekend service gaps.
Like the fire chief, soon-to-be Police Chief Tony Parrish noted an increase in the number of calls, from 4,261 in 2014 to 5,097 in 2015. Due to this increase, Interim Police Chief Kip Hester will be returning to the Criminal Investigations Division upon Parrish’s arrival, which will, due to reorganization, create a vacancy in the Patrol Division. Parrish requested funding for two additional officer positions, one to fill the void and one new position. In addition, Parrish stated that he is looking into a grant from Homeland Security to fund a community policing officer and that he is investigating a grant for body cameras for officers.
In order to keep the community better informed of police activity, Parrish plan to have a Facebook page and a web site for updates. Future plans also include active community watch programs, a Citizens Police Academy to educate participants about police services, programs for the elderly, and engaging youth programs. Parrish has redesigned the department patches and is in the process of getting new uniforms for officers, both of which were available for board members to view.
DeVane’s report on public services revealed that two of the wells utilized by the town have a poor life expectancy. The division is currently working on one of the wells and has future plans to improve the other. The downtown sewer rehab project is expected to be completed in April.
In light of recent developments in Flint, Mich., a question was raised by Councilman Ricky Leinwand regarding the water quality in Elizabethtown.
“We’re lucky that we have good water, and we’re fortunate to have plenty of water in the aquifer. We don’t add anything except chlorine, and it’s a disinfectant. We’re in good shape,” stated DeVane.
A recurring issue throughout the day was that of zoning and sign ordinances. In the morning session, Councilman Dicky Glenn raised the issue of Leinwand’s sign, saying that it had been out of compliance for quite some time. Councilman Howell Clark stated that the ordinances need to be reconsidered and that the proposed ordinances, being directly derived from those in Cary, were not suitable for Elizabethtown.
The board again addressed the issue in the afternoon when they heard from several community members representing business interests in town. Campbell asked the assembled panel how the board could make the process of opening a business in Elizabethown friendlier and how they could encourage businesses to be attracted to the town. Panel members suggested that sign and zoning ordinances be revamped, keeping in mind the current businesses and how they will be affected by new ordinances.
The brainstorming session generated an idea about opening a fishery at the Cape Fear Lock and Dam No. 2, which has been recently acquired by the town, and utilizing the fishery both for recreation and for tournaments. The panel also suggested that the town hire a marketing and tourism person or contract an agency to develop a marketing plan for the area. The suggestion generated much discussion, and board members agreed that marketing would improve commerce and residential interest, but questioned where the funding could be found.
Panel member Hope Campbell pointed out that it would be difficult to generate interest in the area unless the quality of education is improved.
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.