BY DEBBIE PAGE
The Troutman Town Council recently held a day-long budget retreat at Lake Norman State Park to look at needs and improvements in a variety of areas for fiscal year 2020-2021.
The council is looking at several significant projects, including the possible transition of Troutman Fire and Rescue to a municipal department, the building of two ballfields and additional parking at ESC Park, and water and sewer capacity challenges on the horizon. The council also heard issues surrounding funding of school resource officers.
MUNICIPAL FIRE DEPARTMENT?
Town officials heard a presentation Harrisburg Fire Chief Byron Dunn, who detailed that city’s two-year transformation from a volunteer fire service to a city department. He noted the move’s positives, including stable funding, better planning for capital needs, better employee benefits, and fire department input into growth and development issues, including donation of land for future fire department facilities.
The town created a fire marshal’s office to provide a new revenue stream, improved its ISO fire insurance rating, and enhanced department training accountability and job security.
The only negatives Dunn cited were the loss of volunteers due to higher training requirements, and the challenge of integrating personnel systems. He also warned the Troutman council to consider the costs of buying credit for years served as firefighters enter state retirement system, an expenditure they had not anticipated in their change-over.
Dunn said the department was now more stable with long-term planning, increased community and council awareness of its services and contributions, and a 10-year capital plan for large purchases. “The fire department is in a much better place today to handle growth,” he said.
Keeping the volunteer department’s charter under a fire department auxiliary is important because the department can still apply for grants, according to Dunn.
Troutman Fire and Rescue would still contract with the county to provide fire service in nearby unincorporated areas as it does now.
Chip Goodwin of Davenport-Lawrence, who may be hired by the town to do an analysis of the fire department transition process and its costs, noted that the town’s human resources needs
could double with the addition of TFR employees.
Leamon Brice, former Davidson town manager and a Davenport-Lawrence consultant, said TFR would be wise to join a stable town organization. The $18,500 study would help provide a transition roadmap to look at potential bumps, financial implications, and human resources impacts as well as the separation from county fire control.
TFR Chief Wesley Morris said that retention of full-time firefighters is difficult for the busy department, whose call volumes are exceeded only by Mooresville and Statesville municipal departments.
“Being a municipal department would help us with recruiting and retention,” Morris said.
The TFR Board of Directors is aware of these talks and is interested in learning more about a town-operated department.
The council talked more about the issue at its March 9 pre-agenda meeting and will vote on whether to proceed with the study at its March 12 meeting.
ESC PARK BALLFIELDS
Recreation Director Emily Watson presented a proposal to build two softball/baseball fields as well as additional parking at ESC Park to begin phase three of the park’s master plan.
Phase one is complete, with phase two finished except for the amphitheater, which was postponed as the town waits for a county decision about fairground improvements, which may include an amphitheater.
Watson said that citizen feedback indicates that they prefer ball fields rather than an amphitheater.
Watson said that she has an estimate from Field Builders, which constructed the soccer fields, to construct both fields for $96,000. Costs were reduced because grading is already nearly perfect and the grass seed selection was downgraded.
With $100,000 in the Park Capital Project Fund, Watson wants to start field construction as soon as possible and use the proposed 2020-21 $100,000 budget contribution toward fencing, dugouts, backstop, bases, mounds, bleachers, score board and trash bins.
Watson also asked for additional budget funding or debt service to provide 175 more parking spaces. She proposed a gravel lot for the present with paving to come later.
Councilman Paul Henkel suggested the council look at the costs and funding possibilities for an asphalt lot. Police Chief Tina Fleming agreed, saying marked parking is safer and more efficient.
A proposed concession stand and restrooms could wait for the future. Watson plans to continue applying for grants and seeking sponsorships and in-kind donations as well.
Watson also presented some estimates for camera installations at the ESC Park pavilion and the Depot for council consideration after recent vandalism issues.
SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICER FUNDING
Council members have wrestled with the town funding costs of the police department’s school resource officers in Troutman’s schools, especially since most students being protected do not live in the town limits.
Fleming said that consistent SRO funding throughout the county, equal distribution of resources and funds, and better communication between the school board, county, and town were necessary to address current issues.
Troutman has a memo of understanding with Iredell-Statesville Schools that spells out expectations, responsibilities, and reimbursements for SROs in the Troutman town limits.
Though the town was budgeted to receive only $159,100 for SRO services, I-SS Board Chairman Martin Page, who was invited by Fleming to answer questions, pointed out that the school system actually paid $201,795, as billed by the town, to cover SRO costs.
Page also added that the SROs that serve county elementary schools were provided by the county commissioners and were not requested by the school system.
“The people in Troutman pay county taxes, and if the county is going to pay for SROs in the county, they ought to pay for them in the city of Statesville, the city of Mooresville, and the city of Troutman too.“
“We told them this wasn’t fair to the municipalities,” added Page. “Iredell-Statesville Schools is fully supportive of having it fair and equitable.”
Page said his board has no idea what next year’s budget will bring because the state never passed one and the county commissioners have not met with the school board in six months to discuss its budget plans.
“We are the 111th funded school district in North Carolina but the 16th richest county in the state. I’m sorry — that is what’s killing us. We are doing a pretty doggone good job with what we’ve got.”
Page praised the positive working relationship with the town and the effort of the TPD and town to provide safe schools for children, saying they had gone above and beyond. “We over double your population by bringing students and staff in.”
“I don’t think Troutman’s been treated fairly,” added Page.
Mayor Teross Young’s recommendation coming out of the discussion was the need for open communication between the county commissioners and school, law enforcement, and town officials to create a course of action and richer dialogue.
Young requested that a letter be sent to Iredell County Board of Commissioners Chairman James Mallory to request a meeting of these interested parties.
WATER/SEWER SYSTEMS AND CAPACITY
Engineer Benjie Thomas of West Consultants presented upcoming challenges to water and sewer capacity as Troutman’s growth continues. Current water demand is being met, but with 3,000 approved housing units on the horizon, Thomas believes the town will need to increase or supplement its supply from EnergyUnited.
Though the town contracts with Statesville for up to 1 million gallons per day (MGD), the infrastructure for the connection can actually only handle .66 MGD.
Thomas also said that sewer capacity will also soon face challenges as already approved developments will use most of the current remaining capacity provided by Statesville.
The town’s sewer capacity agreement with Mooresville of 2 MGD is sufficient, but the current connection only allows .432 MGD. Coming developments will exceed that flow, so more pump stations will be needed to meet future demand.
Thomas also suggested continuing to use oversize main lines in strategic ways to accommodate future development, to investigate options for increasing capacity with Statesville and Mooresville connections, to continue purchasing blocks of capacity with Mooresville as needed, and to improve, rehab or replace infrastructure and system components as needed.
In relation to a new state law regulating system development fees (SDF), Thomas recommended updating the water and sewer capital improvement plan. He also said council must decide if it wants to charge developers for off-site improvements for later SDF credit or pay for improvements upfront and charge SDFs later to offset costs.
After performing the required SDF analysis, the council can hold a public hearing and adopt a new SDF fee schedule.
Finance Director Steve Shealy reported that the town is expected to collect more tax revenues than projected in this year’s budget, including $2,709,000 in ad valorem (property) taxes (projected at $2,594,533) and $812,500 in sales tax (projected at $767,000).
The total general fund revenue is expected to be $4,456,518, exceeding 2019-2020 budget projections of $4,306,518.
The water and sewer fund is also looking rosy, with the expected revenues rising to $2,533,000, exceeding budget projections of $2,433,379.
Department spending has also been kept low, with Planning and Zoning expected to be $20,000 under budget and Street Maintenance about $10,400 under because of no snow removal needs this year. Debt service will be about $20,000 less than budgeted, and economic development is about $180,000 less than budgeted.
Shealy is currently conducting preliminary needs assessments from each department and looking at projected revenues to begin the budget construction process for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. He hopes to present next year’s budget at the May council meeting, with the public hearing and final adoption in June.
Shealy warned that the matching costs of the greenway project and the estimates for the Talley Road and downtown sidewalk improvements are higher than projected. Facility needs for the crowded Town Hall also continue.
Town Planner George Berger noted that the cost of the sidewalk project, which was funded based on 2015 estimates, has increased 30 to 40 percent, a problem municipalities are facing across the state.
Councilwoman Sally Williams acknowledged that government moves slowly, but she was worried that this promised Tally Road sidewalk is still not under construction. “They will think we have forgotten about them,” she said.
Berger said construction could begin this summer, and Shealy said cost overruns could be covered through debt service that could affect the fund balance, which stands at a very healthy 52 percent ($1.8 million).