Despite absences, Garner leaders retreat to advance

kjahner@newsobserver.comFebruary 18, 2014 

— Despite snowed-in department heads, Garner’s town council refined priorities and goals during the second day of its retreat at the Garner Performing Arts Center.

Most non-elected officials, some far from Garner, stayed home but Town Manager Hardin Watkins and assistant Rodney Dickerson represented staff as the council hashed out ideas in an effort to focus their attention on workable goals for the next year. Topics ranged from gateway beautification and creating a dog park to promoting growth and finding a sustainable funding model for the fire department.

Though not designed to produce tangible policy decisions, attendees said it was a productive way to sort through the pressing short- and long-term issues and goals of the town.

“This is retreat No. 29 for me and given what I’ve been a part of this was one of the better results. Good facilitator, good dialogue and active participation,” Mayor Ronnie Williams said.

A big concern going forward is the bond project. Before going home because of the snow Wednesday, the budget and special progress manager presented a report detailing the progress on each bond project, including money budgeted and spent as well as next steps. The plan is to fine tune it, make it available to the public and update it once every two months.

“We need to continue on with making sure the bond program moves forward,” Councilman Ken Marshburn said.

Growth

The council appears unified regarding moving ahead on items from last fall’s growth strategies task force. Currently, staff is working out policies that could increase allowances for builders. Watkins noted that post-recession, custom home builds have become rare and developers often get multiple builders to construct housing in a development at the same time at a faster rate. That makes the current town caps on construction restrictive.

Much of the potential growth in housing would be meaningless to the town unless it can extend water and sewer coverage. Raleigh has expanded available capacity, but infrastructure would need to be built.

Long-term growth plan discussions also include talk of the impact of Interstate 540. If the Department of Transportation chooses the Orange Route, some key intersections could be ripe for development, and a town always looking for commercial development opportunities could be keen on providing utilities in order to acquire the expanded tax base.

“We’re going to have to sit and talk to Raleigh,” Councilman Gra Singleton said. “If (the road is built from 2018-2022 as planned), planning will take years so we need to get ahead of that.”

Singleton clarified that despite efforts to grow, the town would continue to avoid aggressive annexations of any areas that aren’t interested in becoming part of the town.

“We’re not looking to annex people,” Singleton said. “We’re not looking to take in any existing neighborhoods.”

Williams acknowledged that extending utilities would come at a cost while the town begins paying bond debt. He said numbers would have to be crunched to determine the costs of extending the lines and the countering potential increase in tax revenue from growth. It will also depend on the level of partnership with the City of Raleigh, with which the town contracts to provide water and sewer services.

Newly promoted town engineer Tony Chalk was on vacation last week.

Fire services

The town doesn’t know what will happen with the fire funding model, but most agree it will be changing; the question is how and how fast.

In the short term the town will continue to be stuck paying the gaps left unfunded in the 55-45 split with the Wake County.

Long term, few dispute that eventually the town will end up taking over fire services. Williams said council is thinking too fast with a 3-5 year time-line for such a complicated transition, especially with Wake County set to hire a new county manager soon. Singleton said the new hire will be important. But he said that as soon as the seat was filled, a study to determine costs, benefits and drawbacks of municipal fire should follow shortly.

Garner Volunteer Fire and Rescue Chief Matt Poole said that change was likely at least five years out.

Several parties agreed that the next step would be getting the county, fire board and town on the same page. In previous years that hasn’t always been easy, but the town and Poole say relationships are better and improving.

Poole noted that the county was re-configuring its method of determining cost-share with various municipalities.

“No one really knows how those numbers came to be or when they were determined,” Poole said. “I really think that’s the next step of the conversation,” Poole said.

He said it was to early to know what weight would be given to variables like area, call volume, population or tax base, much less how it might effect Garner.

Other topics

Not all topics require vast, far-reaching policy changes. Garner residents want a dog park, Marshburn said, and Watkins called that a “can-do.” The cost, Williams said, would be reasonable, with Watkins adding that setting it up at existing park space – that’s already leveled and has restrooms – would be key to minimizing costs.

The council also wants to improve corridors and in particular gateways into the town. Not much can be done on the western U.S. 70 into Garner until DOT has finished work there in the fall. But new signage and landscaping on U.S. 401 was discussed, along with other gateways.

Singleton also lamented the time it has taken to produce the All America City signage the town has purchased.

“You and I could have made them by now,” he said.

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

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