Town Council 2023 Retreat Summary

February 9, 2023

All information included in this communication is from town documents or from town officials.  The purpose is to provide the facts to taxpayers in the community since many had not heard or read the full implications to them personally.  BRCA presents the question about whether additional debt or additional property taxes should be imposed to fund the cost of an aesthetic project in view of other huge capital needs that must be addressed by the town.  The responses that we have received are heavily weighted toward not wanting to pay additional property taxes for burying the utilities on Main Street in light of other town needs.  Many of the BRCA board members attended some or all sessions of the winter retreat for the Town Council which was held three days this past week,  and we learned a lot more about those needs that will require funding sources.  Social Media has proven that many have several misconceptions about these projects.  While BRCA takes no official position on these issue we feel its important to provide you with the facts for your own consideration.

Town of Blowing Rock Town Council Retreat 

Jan 30 – Feb 1, 2023, Brief Summary

Speeding, Traffic Issues:  Town Manager Shane Fox noted the new stoplight at Green Hill is now operational on 321 and addition of two police position (one recently filled which includes our first K-9 unit, the other has been offered to a new police academy grad in the spring).

Blowing Rock Stats: There are 1,376 full time residents according to a recent census (winter number; in season, more like a 10 -15,000 population town); there are 2,300 housing units; the tax value is $1.6 billion; the current tax rate .37/$100 of value (produces about $6 Million in annual property taxes); Town revenues come 47% from property tax, 19% from sales tax, 18% from occupancy tax, remainder from miscellaneous (ABC, permits, fees); Town expense annual budget ~ $13 million

Water/sewer is a separate restricted fund – We are in the middle year of a 3 year rate increase. Originally rate increase was intended to cover Main Street project, but since state money is now available for that, the higher rate revenue can cover next level of needs. W/S expense annual budget ~$2.5 million

Bonds approved in 2014 : A total of $13 million, $9 million spent so far, remaining $4 million is out for bid from banks and will be issued in 2023. As disclosed at time of vote, funds will be committed to transportation, parks, water and sewer. Issuance of $4 million will bring total debt into $15 million range, but old debt will also be rolling off in the next 5 and 10 years (charts in Retreat slides)

Fund balance – BR stated goal is to have 50% of total budget in reserve; right now we have 43% which would be enough to operate for ~ 5 months without revenue.  The amount fluctuates during the year based mostly on when various taxes are paid.  We are at a higher revenue point now.

NC Local Government Commission – LGC must approve borrowings in excess of $500,000 for all municipalities. Also monitors fund balance levels. Red flags if it goes below ~ 15%. (LGC requires an 8% minimum reserve).

Comprehensive Development Plan 2014:  Updated every ten years is to be done in 2024.  Destination by Design from Boone is the likely consultant (the only one to bid, so project is being rebid). Council would like to have a draft plan by November 2023; public input to be solicited.

Downtown development plan:  Review is in process with ad hoc committee.  Tom Barrett is a committee member. There are Planning Board members, Town Council members and local citizens represented on the committee. Public comment/input encouraged. So far, seems to be focused on desire to preserve what we have (quaintness, charm), simplify code and keep green spaces on west side of Main Street.  Committee looking at all existing town code. Public notice to go out this week.

Cemetery – There are plans to expand (91 spaces left available to date), add columbarium and/or sprinkle garden.

Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI for water meters) Would replace direct meter reading; allow for Town and home owners to monitor and set flags remotely.  Cost ~ $1.2 million (10 year loans, 5% interest/$180K debt service per year). Should fit in current water/sewer rates. Expect to see on TC agenda for March meeting.  Could move forward with LGC approval in late spring.

Main Street infrastructure improvements: Bids requested are for replacing water and sewer in two separate trenches and a third trench with a duct bank in it through which underground utility wires could be run.  (Utilities have estimated cost of running wires at $2.47 million (in addition to cost of trenching/burying), but would not necessarily need to be done at same time as trenching and burying the duct bank).  Third step will be repaving. There is state and DOT money for water, sewer, and paving. (There is also a sidewalk piece of the project that would be paid for with proceeds from the last of the 2014 bonds).  Only one bid was received by initial deadline so it could not be opened. Rebids are being requested with Feb 21, 2023 deadline.  One problem stated by non-bidders is that they would need a subcontractor to do the underground utility (UU) work and haven’t been able to find them. (The one bid that was received, but not opened, was from a contractor who proposes to do the utility trench and duct bank in house.)  The ideal plan at this point would be to award bids by April, start work around May – June, finish in a year on water and sewer piece. Would then come back and add utility trench – another 6 months to compete (excluding running the wiring).  Total inconvenience/interruption time estimated at 18 months. Would probably delay contract piece on underground utilities  if they are included and add with a change order due to the need to obtain LGC approval for the necessary borrowing to finance (subject to approval and providing collateral of town property to secure) for the UU piece for which the pay back plan would be a property tax increase. No grants or government sources were identified for this part of the project. If only the trenching and duct bank are included, estimate a $2 million loan at 5% for 15 years (tax increase of $92.50/year for 15 years on a $500K house).  If the utility work is also included, estimate a $5 million loan at 5% for 15 years ($179.50/year on a $500K house for 15 years).  Not entirely clear at this point. The utility cost included tie-in to individual properties. There is some cost benefit (amount undetermined) to doing all projects at one time (not clear if this is true if there is a different contractor for utility work vs water/sewer) and it would not be necessary to completely tear the street up again if the pulling of wires is not done until later. If the entire utility underground work were postponed to a later date, it would still benefit from knowing exactly where the water and sewer lines are which is an unknown today. Loss of 5-6 parking spaces and obtaining all necessary easements still to come but wouldn’t need to happen if only trenching and duct bank takes place.

TDA Report: Lots of stats, discussed potential change in state law about what TDA money can be spent on, suggested Town Council consider limiting use of town property in season to local residents (outside people can use Chetola, hotels etc.); working on new wayfinding signs (will look similar to the new ones in Boone); focusing on branding/re-branding Blowing Rock; current target is high end, educated female age 35-54 and seniors, soft adventure (walking around Bass Lake, BRAHM, Cone House), some focus on younger, hard adventure (skiing, more difficult hikes).

K-9 Officer:  New police officer is a trained K-9 handler and has a trained K-9 (narcotics (not marijuana) and tracking); police chief will ask to add to budget and look for a second K-9; there is a non-profit apparently interested in funding the dog and training for the dog and handler

Paid Parking:  Will be seeking Town Council  (TC) approval to proceed with on-street, town lots and some private lots (with agreements from private lot owners) at February TC meeting; revised ordinances to be noticed for public hearing and public comments at March TC meeting; if approved, would then order kiosks and proceed to get in place with fall 2023 (September) implementation.  Seed money would come from Fund Balance, but be paid back promptly from parking fee proceeds. Parking Fund would be set up as a separate restricted fund (like water and sewer is now).  When excess proceeds are generated down the road, they would be available for parking needs – such as new parking lots or decks.

Ambulance:  Presentation by fire chief on inadequate service to county when measured on a fractal standard (what % of total calls are answered in a specific period of time) vs average (what is average response time for all calls).  Watauga average is skewed by having most ambulances in most heavily populated area (Boone) – average is arrival in 10 minutes or less.  But if you use fractal standard and full county, only 60.59% of calls are in 10 minutes or less.  Should be more like 75%. The only way to achieve this is to have more ambulances available for emergency response and they need to be closer to next level of density (which happens to be in Blowing Rock).  Chief suggests better focus politically is that the system needs to be improved across the board, not that BR “deserves” better service.  He also showed info from other counties that they (Caldwell especially) put a greater priority on health and safety and spend much more dollarwise and per capital on EMS service.

Parks and Recreation Project:  There were no bids received on the project previously approved by TC. Has gone out to be rebid and those are due 2/21/23.  The entire project original budget in 2021 was $1,285,000.  Current cost unknown.

Stormwater Fund:  A possible new approach (and tax) was described where a new restricted fund for stormwater issues would be set up (like water and sewer and what is proposed for paid parking).  Would be a fee added to water bill for all water users. Proceeds would be used to pay for stormwater control projects.  Pros and cons were discussed. Currently, these needs are dealt with through the general fund. Some TC members seemed to like it, but noted that if this were done, property owner expectations for stormwater response would be heightened.

Water and sewer topics:  The USDA loan process for the Mayview lift station and some other projects is proceeding slowly, but funds are expected to be available.  The project is currently out for bids. The communications building next to the Green Hill water tank is planned to be demolished and replaced with new generators and repeaters for radio communication of Fire & Police (cost $150,000, this will be in the 2023-24 capital budget.) There was discussion about the Green Hill water tank which, when full, is more than adequate (compared to other nearby communities – we have 8 days of water off season; the others have less than 4). In-season water use averages 600,000 gallons per day. The interconnect with Boone which was tested after the incident last summer is a good back up.  But we only have one water tank. It needs to be cleaned and checked for repairs, but because it is concrete, it probably has at least another 25 years useful life.  There was additional discussion about expansion of sewer to serve parts of town not currently served and water line replacement needs (galvanized pipes followed by cast iron).   

Other comments and observations:

-Embers Hotel completion date pushed out to Fall 2024. Difficult construction site mentioned as reason for delay.

– Pine & Laurel, 14 room hotel with parking underneath has broken ground.

– Former Scotsman at corner of Sunset and Valley Blvd – will be a tear down/rebuild. Same footprint. Demo expected to begin in February. 

-No activity on planned coffee shop across Sunset from former Scotsman property.

– Building across from Outback has been purchased by a local property owner. Use currently not specified.

– 7 acre property on Main Street next to Chetola entrance – owner engaged in market research; has previously expressed interest in hotel with housing for employees, retail space, high end steakhouse, onsite parking.  No current financing.

– owner of property downhill from Chateau Cloud expect to ask PB/TC to approve a short-term rental overlay for it.  Currently two houses on the property.

– new owner of Shoppes at Parkway seeking local tenants

– Possible hotel site at Valley Blvd and Ransom. No recent communications to Planning Board. A council member reported seeing surveyor at the property recently.

– Property on Main Street across from Town Hall. Owner considering parking, retail, housing structure development.

– El Rincon building has a new owner: – adding two levels of STR; 5 bedrooms

– in 2022, 14 new homes built: lots of renovations and additions

– currently 17 properties on the market, only one under $700K

– STR – League of Municipalities is on alert for anything at the State level, nothing yet; no non-compliance has been uncovered with letters to homeowners inside town limits (but not in STR permitted area) who did not state 28 day requirement in VRBO/AirBnB ads.  Tracy Brown said he thinks that AirDNA website overstates the number of rentals by double counting those that are listed with more than one service. However, both Kevin and Tracy report recent increases in dwelling unit rentals (and related occupancy taxes).  

Underground Utilities received only one bid. Town was not allowed to open single bid, project out for rebidding those are due February 21st.

Park update and redevelopment project received no bids.  Out for re-bid those due February 21st.

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