BY DEBBIE PAGE
The Troutman Town Council concluded its strategic planning sessions for the next fiscal year with presentations from the finance, parks and recreation, and planning departments on Monday.
Town Manager Ron Wyatt said the sessions were to identify broken systems, determine how to fix them, and move forward.
“We are taking a look at what we are doing and then looking for better ways to do things,” he said.
Mayor Teross Young appreciated the staff time and energy to prepare for the strategic planning sessions. “We need a deeper dive into some issues and to think deeply on how to best serve our customers,” he said.
New council member Jerry Oxsher said he appreciated that town staff identified both challenges and solutions in their presentations.
Finance Director Justin Mundy reported that as of February 28, revenue was up over 10.37 percent over the same months of the last fiscal year. About $125,000 of property taxes remain unpaid.
Expenditures so far this fiscal year are up over $1 million, with most increases due to capital outlay expenditures and property purchases, including the North Avenue lots ($238,000), North Eastway properties ($296,000) in 2021 and 160 and 170 Wagner Street properties ($502,000) and 334 North Avenue ($335,000) in 2022.
Administrative expenditures were also up with the addition of new positions, which also necessitated new computers and equipment, new payroll transition software, and Harris software training for new employees.
Planning Department costs are also up with the previously vacant director position now back up to full-time and the addition of a full-time planning associate to meet the increasing demands on the department growth explodes in Troutman and its ETJ.
The utility fund’s revenue is up almost 37 percent for the first eight months of this fiscal year compared to last year. Water and sewer installations are also up $98,000 and water and sewer sales up $339,000.
Costs also went up $233,000 for an increased water capacity allotment after the increase in water sales.
Mundy additionally presented the official award letter for a maximum of $2,445,000 in American Rescue Plan grant funding for the Westmoreland Road wastewater project that will allow the town to pump wastewater to Mooresville’s treatment plant at a higher capacity.
The town will have no matching costs with the grant. The project must be completed by December 31, 2026.
Mundy also listed some current goals in progress, including moving away from paper to digital as much as is allowed under state statutes. The staff is scanning documents onto the servers to allow easier access.
As he gets the new payroll system up and running, Mundy is working out the normal kinks in the transition process as they add in town policy parameters. He likes the greater accountability with the system that leaves less room for human error.
Since joining the town last September, Mundy has been learning the town’s processes and looking for ways to modernize and improve them.
“Troutman is growing, and we need more efficient processes with more customers and employees. What worked 10 to 20 years ago does not work now,” he said.
One area Mundy is improving is utility payments. Customers who pay over the phone with credit cards consume excessive employee time. Staff members take 500 to 600 phone payments per month, averaging three minutes each.
Another issue with phone payments is the opportunity for error with possibly mishearing customers in the busy office environment or keying in numbers incorrectly. Having access to credit card numbers and verification codes is also a responsibility the town does not want.
Most municipalities do not offer pay by phone, but if they do, they use an automated Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system. “We can better service customer needs if we limit or eliminate credit card payments by phone,” he said.
“During the busy times of the month, the ladies up front deal with billing questions, trash pickup questions and complaints, and many other phone calls, so this would relieve some stress and free up time for more important matters.”
A potential upgrade in software would enable the town to have an automated phone system.
One crack in the system Mundy identified is that the town is losing approximately $200,000 annually because collected recycling fees only amount to $36,000 ($1.80 per customer), while trash/recycle pickup costs are budgeted at $230,000.
This low fee was assessed 30 years ago, when recyclables were still sold to recoup costs, and the town never raised the fee costs increased.
“If something’s $200,000 out of kilter, that warrants your attention. We need a self-paying system,” said Wyatt, who noted costs will continue to go up with additional homes and ever increasing service costs.
Hickory charges $25 per month for trash/recycling services, with other nearby municipalities charging $10 to $20 monthly.
The council will delve more deeply into this problem in April budget discussions and look for solutions to make the service self-sustaining.
Mundy also identified several areas for improvement for the rest of the fiscal year and beyond, including creating more structured processes relating to new customers and accounts, improving communication with department heads to ensure they have a clear picture of their budgets, encouraging utility customers to use autopay, and working to attract and keep good employees to serve citizens.
PARKS AND RECREATION
Parks and Recreation Director Chip Smith presented the Parks and Recreation report, noting that all of ESC Park’s phase one and two development projects are complete, with the exception of the planned phase two amphitheater, which was delayed until the county decides its development plans, which may include an amphitheater, at the nearby Iredell County Fairgrounds.
Two volleyball sand courts, not on the original master plan, were also built.
Phase three baseball/softball fields, additional parking, and sidewalks around the soccer fields are also complete. Smith plans a public input meeting to discuss possible removal of horse shoe pits and basketball courts from phase three in the park’s master plan in favor of easily accessible pocket parks in different areas of town.
The most pressing project, according to citizen feedback, is construction of a concessions stand and bathrooms at the ESC Park baseball fields, which will also provide power access for the irrigation system, future scoreboards, and lights on the baseball fields.
The town is working with West Consultants on a design-build process for the concession/bathrooms project, with the current construction estimate at $324,484, about one-third more than the town had projected in this year’s budget.
Wyatt told council members they may request rolling the project over into the next fiscal year to allocate the additional funds needed for the project. Naming rights will help recover some of the project costs, added Wyatt.
Council member Paul Henkel noted completion of the concession/bathrooms project and lighting the fields were important to attract baseball tournaments to the park.
Wyatt also noted that after the park’s contracted mowing services quit, the town reallocated the budgeted funds to hire a part-time employee to work three days a week to mow and complete general maintenance tasks on the recently acquired town properties.
According to Town Planner Lynne Hair, one word best describes Troutman: Growth.
From 2010 to 2020, the population increased 55 percent, from 2,383 to 3,698. Of course, many more new residents have joined the community in the past two years, which does not show up in these census numbers.
Department trends in the past five years show a significant increase in issued permits, rising from 150 in 2017 to 346 last year. In 2022, the department has already issued 75 permits through February, putting it on track to surpass 450 permits this year, each representing one house.
Planning staff also issued 25 more permits in just three days in March.
Thirty subdivisions have been reviewed in the past two years, as opposed to only 29 from 2017-19.
Site reviews for apartments, townhomes, and commercial sites rose from six in 2018-19 to 21 in 2020-21. After three years of seven or eight rezoning cases annually, this past year the department handled 13 cases.
Three subdivisions are currently under construction (1,622 single family homes), with another 1,784 residential lots are approved with no site plans submitted, and another 923 currently being proposed.
Hair said these numbers do not include projects built “by right” under current zoning, including 450 apartment units near the charter school.
“We are looking at doubling the population,” added Hair.
The mayor commented that much of the growth is fueled by remote work. Instead of living in expensive big cities like Charlotte, workers can move to smaller towns and buy more square footage and yard space for the same money or less.
Wyatt said that although the growth is not without some pain, town managers from other towns call him to ask Troutman’s “recipe to get industry projects they would kill for.”
Wyatt also discussed the rumored project for 800 acres in Barium Springs, which is in Troutman’s zoning jurisdiction. The land-use plan for calls single family homes, mixed use, and commercial/industrial sites, with 1,600 to 2,700 homes possible in this area, depending on developers’ proposals.
“it’s up to Troutman to decide,” said Wyatt.
Developers are currently negotiating the land purchase and have had some preliminary discussions with the town about possible zoning designations for the area. However, Wyatt noted no documents have been submitted to the town for consideration.
Hair advised revisiting the land use map, a living document which has not been thoroughly reviewed since its 2018 adoption. Normally this process happens every five years, but Henkel commented that Troutman’s explosive growth warranted a new review.
Currently, the map defines medium density zoning at 3 to 4 homes per acre and designates much of Barium Springs as industrial. Wyatt commented that the trend has been to steer industrial projects to areas near exits 45 and 42.
Hair asked that council members update the map soon to provide the planning staff “a clear direction for land use decisions.” She noted that the current land use plan does not always align with zoning decisions.
Wyatt suggested meeting with council members two at a time to discuss the Future Land Use map. “We have a very competent staff in house to get this right in the next year,” noting that this document will always evolve.
Hair noted that a lot more developers and builders are told no in informal conversations than those who actually make it to the zoning phase. Many call to ask questions and never call again after getting requested information.
Developers do come to discuss a potential project, asking about things like the land use plan and water and sewer capacity before they start spending money on site plans, engineers, and architects.
Another challenge Hair noted was the need for numerous Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) text amendments, including some to resolve conflicts within the ordinances themselves.
Other ordinance areas in need of attention include landscaping and saving trees (important to shield high density areas), signs, subdivisions, and stormwater maintenance. She also asked that council consider adding cluster subdivision language, for which they are now using conditional residential mixed use zoning.
Hair also wants to build in pocket parks into subdivisions to enhance and accelerate Parks and Recreation Department goals.
Associate Planner Andrew Ventresca, who has extensive experience in transportation planning, has been working with consultants to develop a pedestrian plan using the recently awarded Transportation Planning Grant.
Hair also said the long-waited Tally Street sidewalk project is at the consultant stage and moving forward.
She noted several challenges facing the department, including the increasing workload and pointing to 13 rezoning case from 2021 all processed in the last four months of the year.
The need for additional office, meeting, and storage space and for additional technology are also challenges. “There’s lots of paper in the department that we cannot destroy.”
She suggested an information kiosk in the lobby area could quickly and efficiently provide answers to basic questions from developers or citizens, freeing up some time for the busy two-person staff.
Hair also wants to develop and streamline coordination with public works and the utilities departments as the department issues permits.