Requests get mixed results

By Jeff Linville -

DOBSON — Mount Airy and Pilot Mountain both came before county officials with requests, but only one came away satisfied.

At the last meeting of the county Board of Commissioners, two Pilot Mountain officials presented their case in person, while the Mount Airy police chief sent in a written request. The county gave a thumbs up to Pilot, but declined to act on the city request.

Pilot plan

Town Manager Michael Boaz said that when his town council held a spring retreat, a hot topic of conversation was how to create programs and/or policies to stimulate private investment downtown.

The town has had a grant program in place to reward folks for making improvements to store fronts, but it wasn’t being used. Boaz said two facade grants were given out in the most recent fiscal year — and those were the only two in a decade.

Boaz said the town has increased the funding available for the program while expanding what improvements can qualify.

Say a building worth $100,000 gets renovated and becomes worth $125,000. The town will continue to collect taxes on that $100,000 value as always. The amount of the improvement, however, can generate a grant equal to part of what the taxes would be.

The grant would be the same as 100 percent of the taxes paid on the new $25,000 worth of building improvements in the first two years. Then the grant would drop to 75 percent in the third year, 50 percent in the fourth and 25 percent in the fifth. After that, the town collects the full tax value of the $125,000 building with no grant.

Boaz said the Pilot commissioners wanted to know if this was a plan the county board could support, too.

County Manager Chris Knopf said that in the past the county board has allowed the towns to say, “What is economic development for us?”

Pilot doesn’t have a Barter Theatre or Spencer’s project to draw huge investment dollars, noted Boaz, so it has to be creative in finding ways to get downtown investment.

“We’re doing everything we can to kickstart things downtown,” said Boaz, including the hiring of a Main Street coordinator and the funding of downtown events.

Commissioner Gary Tilley said he liked the approach. “If you can’t do the big buffalo hunt, you can do it incrementally.”

Chairman Eddie Harris said that usually economic development is something that is done on a case-by-case basis, not by setting a wide precedent like this.

However, he added, the county board has been supportive of downtown projects — especially in older districts, such as the Liberty property in downtown Elkin. That was done as a cash grant incentive to the owner, he pointed out.

Boaz said he could understand not wanting to make a formal policy, but having something concrete to show property owners in Pilot Mountain could entice them to invest.

Evan Cockerham, the newest Pilot commissioner after being elected in November 2016, said he appreciated the board members showing support for the project. However, with this being an election year, the makeup of multiple boards could change in a couple of months, so it would be glad to have some kind of agreement in place.

Cockerham himself has filed to run for Pilot mayor after Dwight Atkins announced he wasn’t running again. He will be running against fellow Commissioner Gary Bell, while another board member, Linda Needham, has announced she will not run again.

Some changes have already taken place because of voting, even before the November election. County Commissioners Gary Tilley and Larry Phillips will be replaced on the board by Mark Marion and Bill Goins, after the results of the GOP primary.

If the board is worried about protecting itself, the commissioners could put caps or limitations on any downtown-improvement plan, offered Cockerham.

If not a motion, Knopf asked if the board had a consensus on agreeing with the ideals of the program.

Tilley said he gives philosophical support to the idea of the program.

Commissioner Van Tucker said, “These guys work hard to try to improve the town.” He said he is a little reluctant to say yes without a fair standard, but in a case where an investment would be up for possible reimbursement, Tucker said he would be inclined to agree if Pilot officials themselves believe a project improves the town.

Phillips said, “Economic development packages don’t come in the same size box and don’t give the same size benefits. They have to be flexible to adapt.” He liked the idea.

Johnson said he was glad the town put a limited time frame on grant program, and that it only applies to the amount of the improvement. A percentage of zero is zero, he said, meaning if no one makes improvements, the town doesn’t have any extra value to tax — with or without incentives.

With that, the board gave its full agreement to the principles of the plan, while not committing anything to policy in advance.

City codes

As part of his monthly report, Knopf shared with the board a copy of a letter from Police Chief Dale Watson concerning the city’s codes enforcement job.

“Our municipality believes Surry County has both the expertise and resource to assist us in this area,” wrote Watson. “The City of Mount Airy would like to formally request for your consideration that Surry County take over both minimum housing and code enforcement for our municipality.

“In the past, both tasks have been handled by one individual devoting approximately 20 hours per week to the associated job-related tasks.”

Knopf asked for one of his department heads to address the board on this topic. Johnny Easter is the director of the Development Services Department and a former environmental health supervisor II.

“Mount Airy’s codes are much more in depth than what anybody else in the county does,” said Easter. The county couldn’t just take over the work, but would have to first learn all the differences in policy, then train a person or people on those differences.

He didn’t think the county could do this with existing personnel, so it would mean hiring one new person for at least part-time work.

Up until August 2017, the city paid Benchmark Planning of Charlotte to have an employee in town two days a week to focus on substandard housing that posed safety risks.

With the city board working on a new International Property Maintenance Code, the commissioners voted 4-1 to hire someone to work 20 hours a week investigating violations associated with minimum housing conditions, abandoned structures, abandoned property, tall grass and weeds, trash, debris, junk vehicles and other nuisance issues.

In May after months of planning and work, the city adopted a new code by a narrow 3-2 vote, with Commissioners Jon Cawley and Jim Armbrister dissenting. Cawley referred to the plan as “one more example of government overreach.”

Cawley and Armbrister verbally sparred with codes officer Bill Beamer at the meeting where the code was adopted. Then the next month Beamer tendered his resignation, effective at the end of June.

Commissioner Larry Johnson, whose district includes Mount Airy, pointed out that the city board isn’t even in full agreement on the particulars of the code. With one codes officer already resigning because of conflicts, he felt like he couldn’t support a county worker getting into the middle of all that.

Without the full support of every member on the board, it would be tough to go out there and do that job properly, agreed Commissioner Phillips, who also represents Mount Airy.

After more discussion, the county board chose not to act on the city’s request.

County to help Pilot, not Mount Airy

By Jeff Linville

Reach Jeff at 415-4692.

Reach Jeff at 415-4692.