Market Street should be simple

Unless officials push the decision down the road again, Thursday is when the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners will decide what the city is going to do with the Market Street project.

This has been an ongoing debate between commissioners and business owners along that street, complicated by the fact that some claim earlier work done by the city has created issues with rainwater runoff and flooding in those business buildings.

Most of the debate has centered around the price tag — the city commissioners seem to be fixated on getting the work done for $300,000 or less, while earlier bids came in as high as $375,000.

Most recently, City Engineer Mitch Williams said an updated plan for the work would put the cost at about $301,000.

Unfortunately, this figure rings hollow. By Williams’ own admission, that does not include removing an old concrete surface beneath the present Market Street, a cost that had earlier been estimated to be $50,000. Now, Williams says city staff will do the work, thus removing it from the $300,000 project.

That’s some fuzzy math, folks, unless there’s some reason to believe city staff will volunteer their time, and all materials for the work will be donated. Whether Mount Airy pays a contractor to do the work or pays its own crews, it is still costing the taxpayer. And that old argument “Well, we have them on payroll, so this will keep them busy” isn’t acceptable. If the city has to search for busy work to keep employees occupied, we have to question the need for those positions.

The $300,000 price tag also includes what one might call a “Cadillac” level of work — Mount Airy granite curbing, stamped asphalt crosswalks, brick paver banding, a scored concrete sidewalk, and more.

Those items have raised the ire of some city residents, who claim a simple, but functional, repaving and regular sidewalks is all Market Street needs, like much of the rest of downtown Mount Airy.

Although there are a number of competing interests, all putting their ideas forward as the only right way to go, we would suggest there are some relatively easy, straight-forward questions to explore in making this decision.

First, the city should thoroughly examine complaints by business and property owners there regarding the flooding and seepage into basements. If the city caused those problems with the relatively recent water line work, then the city needs to immediately do what is necessary to alleviate the issues.

Second, use all actual cost estimates in the project when deciding whether to proceed, no funny budgeting by saying city staff will take care of some issues.

Third, do a simple cost vs. benefit analysis. Can spending $300,000, or even the higher $375,000, have a direct, significantly higher impact on drawing business downtown than just doing a basic repaving can at a much lower cost?

We’re not talking about how much nicer the high-dollar version of the work will look, but what does the city, and its taxpayers, stand to gain? If the better, nicer version of the work can draw more visitors to downtown, can generate enough revenue via sales tax and job creation to pay for itself in a year or two (or maybe three), then it seems the higher cost plan is a no-brainer.

But if there will be no, or little, extra measurable benefit to the city for the higher-cost work, if the Cadillac plan cannot generate extra tax revenue and job growth, then it’s an equally clear no-brainer to bypass the premium plan and simply do a basic repaving and sidewalk project.

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