City eyes big-ticket expenses

By Tom Joyce -

City Manager Barbara Jones lists priority projects on a whiteboard Tuesday as Commissioner Jim Armbrister turns to watch.

Mount Airy officials have identified several major projects they want to focus on in the foreseeable future, but less certain is how the list totaling millions of dollars in expenditures will be financed.

A property tax increase usually is relied on to provide extra revenue, but city officials are reluctant to do that — or free up money by slashing services to residents.

“You’re going to have a riot if you go up on taxes and cut services,” Commissioner Shirley Brinkley said Tuesday when spending priorities and finances were discussed.

“An increase in the sales tax is the most obvious thing,” fellow board member Steve Yokeley said of possible ways to generate extra revenue for the projects to avoid stressing the city’s annual budget and financial reserves.

Spencer’s leads list

The top priority is one often discussed, the development of the city-owned Spencer’s property for new uses by private business which will require up-front infrastructure and other costs by the municipality.

Number two on the list is the revitalization of Market Street, located near the Spencer’s site, which officials want to improve partly to encourage more night-life opportunities there. The third priority involves more upgrades of water and sewer lines than are now occurring.

The fourth priority is a project at Reeves Community Center to correct an ongoing flooding problem at its Cherry Street parking lot and add spaces.

Those priorities were hammered out by the five city commissioners and mayor during a day-long workshop Tuesday in a small conference room at the Municipal Building, where they huddled with City Manager Barbara Jones, Finance Director Pam Stone and other personnel.

Additional priorities were discussed but did not make the top four, including developing a “permanent” farmers market on city-owned property at the corner of South Main and Cherry streets; the replacement of overhead power lines downtown with underground lines; and more paving of city-maintained streets than what is now done.

Also identified as priorities among the city officials were the expansion of the city’s greenway system north toward White Sulphur Springs and working to make salaries and benefits for municipal employees more competitive with other cities.

But those items were left off the “official” priority list since actions previously have been taken and funding approved for the two.

Meanwhile, the projects that did make the cut represent major undertakings — and costs — to the city.

And though the commissioners did reach a consensus on the top four, plenty of concern emerged about them.

There was little argument about the Spencer’s redevelopment area, where plans are now in the works for a four-star hotel/banquet center, an upscale apartment complex and a regional entertainment center.

Those entities represent a total investment of $28.5 million, but the city government anticipates spending $4.5 million to $5 million for infrastructure work including street and other improvements to accommodate the new uses.

This is in store within the next several years, but the commissioners already have approved spending up to $382,500 for pre-development activities at Spencer’s.

Mount Airy officials say that once redevelopment occurs, the city’s investment will be recouped through extra property and sales tax revenues, among other benefits.

Market Street issue

There was debate Tuesday regarding the revamping of Market Street, located near the Spencer’s complex.

Board members earlier approved a facelift for that street, but have not appropriated funds for the work or an exact design, with two plans on the table.

One is estimated to cost $154,800 and the other has a $274,200 price tag. The less-costly option would involve concrete sidewalks being installed, while the more-expensive plan calls for brick paver walkways. Earlier this year, the commissioners awarded a separate $154,300 contract for water and sewer rehabilitation work on Market Street.

The cost issue sparked criticism Tuesday from commissioners Jim Armbrister, Jon Cawley and Brinkley.

Cawley questioned spending so much money to improve a street he said is only about 300 feet long.

Armbrister believes individual design elements should be monitored closely to lessen the cost, or at least added over time, with both he and Cawley challenging the need to provide brick pavers for people to walk on as an example.

“We’ve got a lot of big dreamers in town and it’s costing us,” Brinkley said of how such projects evolve. “We need to separate ‘I want’ from ‘I need.’” Brinkley advocates an “economical” approach being taken.

Commissioner Dean Brown defended the Market Street upgrade, saying it will boost tourism spending among visitors who come here during the day and also seek activities at night.

“The idea was to have something unique for people to do,” Brown said of the beer and other enterprises that have taken root on the street. “The business has increased on Market Street.”

“You want it to be nice,” Mayor David Rowe said of the improvement project in light of the street’s proximity to Spencer’s.

Water-Sewer Upgrades

Mount Airy now budgets $600,000 per year for water and sewer line rehabilitation, but there was some agreement Tuesday that the municipality needs to be more aggressive with such projects.

The city has many older lines that are failing, and while those on Hadley Street and other areas have been replaced, there are questions about whether the present spending timetable is keeping pace with the need.

But not everyone is of that mindset.

“I don’t think we can afford to do any more right now,” Brown said of hiking spending for water-sewer upgrades.

For purposes of the priority list, Brown suggested that any escalated expenditures in that area be “spread out over several years.”

There also was discussion Tuesday about borrowing money for water and sewer infrastructure needs which would allow that expense to be extended over time and avoid a hit to the city budget.

Cherry Street work

The project involving the Cherry Street parking lot at Reeves Community Center would add about 40 spaces, plus correct a drainage problem that causes the lower level of the center to flood at times.

However, the price tag for it is about $500,000.

That cost also raised eyebrows Tuesday, especially for Cawley, who offered a comment about the oft-cited need to provide more parking near the center for patrons rather than relying on outlying lots.

“I’d forget about parking at Reeves — tell them to walk,” he said, citing the funding “crunch” Mount Airy faces.

It is due to a problem in which the city government is allocating money for its annual budget from a general fund balance, or reserve, which has been in the $11 million to $12 million range in recent years.

For the present 2016-2017 fiscal year, about $2.4 million from that source was appropriated to balance the budget if needed.

This could result in the reserves dipping to around $8 million and Cawley has been quite vocal about how this represents a non-sustainable situation due to having to fund ongoing needs such as personnel. City workers received a 3 percent raise on July 1.

“At some point the board has to talk about how we’re going to balance the budget,” Cawley said Tuesday.

“And that’s either (by) increases in revenues or cuts” in services, he added.

Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.

City Manager Barbara Jones lists priority projects on a whiteboard Tuesday as Commissioner Jim Armbrister turns to watch. Manager Barbara Jones lists priority projects on a whiteboard Tuesday as Commissioner Jim Armbrister turns to watch.

By Tom Joyce

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