Despite gridlock, Garner officials focus on priorities council retreat

kjahner@newsobserver.comFebruary 14, 2014 


FIREWAR.MW.030701.RTW--Garner,NC--The Garner Volunteer Fire Department at the intersection of W. Main, and Benson Road in Garner. stf/Robert Willett


— The Town of Garner moved its annual council and staff retreat from Raleigh to Garner to shorten drives in the winter storm. However, even as the area’s roads descended into chaos Wednesday, much of the group plowed through its agenda before venturing home through the snow.

As the snow unleashed slip-and-slide gridlock onto Triangle roadways Wednesday, Town Council and some staff members laid out priorities for the rest of the retreat at the Garner Performing Arts Center. Much of the staff – many of whom live outside of Garner – left at lunch, but the council members, Town Manager Hardin Watkins and a few others remained at the GPAC until about 3:45 p.m.

The retreat resumed Thursday at 10 a.m.

Mayor Ronnie Williams said Wednesday was well organized and productive, but admitted that the absence of some department heads could somewhat limit the meetings Wednesday afternoon and Thursday.

“Without them being there, it probably won’t be as detailed and effective as we want it to be. They left their materials with Hardin. We’ll have their presentations, we just won’t have them,” mayor Ronnie Williams said.

After literally throwing dozens of topics at a wall, the town pared them into a core set of town goals to address. That agenda revolves mostly around a few key areas: facilitating and promoting growth, managing bond projects and creating a sustainable long-term funding plan for a fire agency that could be moving toward municipal control.

“Tomorrow (Thursday) will be more action plan oriented. Today was sort of defining the issues and understanding what the issues were,” Watkins said.

Thursday’s meeting included Watkins, Williams and the council, but little additional staff. The caterer canceled so attendees will have to pack a lunch for the 10 a.m. to 4 p.m session.

The goals

The potentially elusive goal will be to make these ideas happen. Thursday council and staff would work on actionable items to bring some of the grander concepts closer to reality.

The town hopes to promote growth from a number of angles. One core initiative for the retreat will be strategy to expand the road and utility infrastructure. The town’s water allocation policy will be discussed; increased capacity from the City of Raleigh could allow for expanded service to more outlying areas – facilitating annexation – and increased housing construction. Economic development, particularly attracting a tenant to the ConAgra site, will also figure into the broader conversation on expanding the tax base.

Transportation needs would also have to be addressed to facilitate such growth, and the town also hopes to promote Triangle Transit’s commuter rail plan. Regarding Interstate 540, the usual points about supporting the Orange Route to avoid the Red Route were made. But the town also wants to take advantage of possible development and annexation of key areas near where the Orange Route would pass through Garner’s future growth territory.

In addition, councilman Buck Kennedy noted the realities of managing three bond construction projects as large or larger than the $4.5 million White Deer Park project, easily the largest undertaking in the town in years (and nominally, ever). He stressed how difficult managing the projects would be if dedicated staff aren’t monitoring the situation constantly, particularly once construction starts.

“If not, we will all have egg on our face trying to manage $35 million in construction. The numbers will get away from us, the time will get away from us,” Kennedy said, adding his cautions come from experience. “I have been schooled, I have been taken to the woodshed on projects (by construction companies).”

The fire department could be an area of disagreement as the retreat continues. Ronnie Williams noted that much of the Council advocated for moving towards making Garner Volunteer Fire and Rescue a town-run entity. Currently, it is an independent agency that contracts with Garner and Wake County, with Garner paying a nominal 55 percent share.

That share has been quietly increasing as Garner, but not Wake County, fills in budget gaps for a department demonstrably underfunded by area standards. Municipal Garner accounts for about 60 percent of calls and an even greater share of planning.

As council favors facing the inevitability, Williams advocates waiting to see what direction Wake County takes with a new county manager. Retired manager David Cooke had worked toward getting the county out of the fire business, ultimately contracting with a more consolidated municipal fire network to cover unincorporated areas. But Williams said a new manager may favor a different route, such as administering a broader Wake County fire service over the unincorporated areas.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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