Much has happened in the communities we cover in 2015. And those events hint at what is to come for the New Year.
Here are the five stories to watch for in 2016 for in Garner and the Cleveland community.
Who will be the next town manager?
Last month, town manager Hardin Watkins announced his last day in Garner will be on Monday. He will start a new role as the Burlington City Manager, where he will make almost $30,000 more a year.
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During his tenure, Watkins helped get the 2013 bond referendum passed. Among the items on the referendum were a new recreation center in the historic downtown, improvements to sidewalks, a new town hall, a new police station and greenways. It will certainly shape the way Garner will look in the future. The town will be much different than it looked 20 years ago.
However, there were times where the manager and the council did not get along, causing some friction between the two parties, particularly when it came to the issue of the fire department. He was at times described as having a dominant personality, which didn’t always mesh with the council, who were his bosses.
Mayor Ronnie Williams said he and the council will look for somebody who will “work in the community and civic club and be a part of the community.”
“Hopefully a manager who brings some new ideas,” Williams said. “Somebody who will be responsive to the council, whatever their needs and wants and concerns are.”
The council will not rush into the search as they are currently looking to hire a new finance director and town clerk first, Williams said.
Interim Town Manager Rodney Dickerson could see an extended period as the town manager.
Which route will N.C. DOT choose for N.C. 540?
With the public comment phase drawing to a close next Friday, N.C. DOT officials will soon gather all its feedback – from the public and its constituents – on the 17 alternative routes, and make a recommendation in the spring.
Residents have sent emails, made phone calls and attended public meetings to provide their input on which route to choose.
Garner residents are highly opposed to the “Red Route,” which plows through the heart of Garner. It would force at least 12 businesses and 435 families to relocate, according to the DOT’s Environmental Impact Study.
That route was drawn because it had the least impact to wetlands and the habitat of an endangered Dwarf wedgemussel species.
The Orange Route, on the other hand, would uproot about 269 families and six businesses, but it would have the biggest impact on wetlands and the Dwarf wedgemussel.
The preferred alternative for most in Garner, Fuquay-Varina and Holly Springs is the full Orange Route. Officials in each town have passed multiple resolutions in support of it.
Hearing N.C. DOT’s preferred route this spring will give some people a peace of mind, particularly in Garner, because it is unlikely any part of the Red Route will be chosen.
But until it is officially ruled out, Garner residents will remain on edge.
Will the town and the county settle their differences?
Historically the town council and county commissioners have not been able to see eye-to-eye when it comes to how much of the costs each entity should bear for the Garner Fire Department.
The town pays roughly 54 percent of the department’s budget while the county pays about 46 percent. But the town believes it should be paying less, because the fire department covers a larger area when responding to calls out in the county.
A recent study conducted by the town showed Garner Fire Department salaries were almost 15 percent behind the market value of fire departments in the Triangle. The starting salaries for firefighters in Garner are among the lowest in the county.
The town has committed to getting them close to market value, even if the county does not help in the first year. However, they are hoping the county will step up and share the cost.
The county is conducting its own study and must address all other fire departments as well.
County commissioner Matt Calabria, who attended a recent council meeting, said the study will likely be completed by the county’s next budget cycle, which would be in line with the town’s timeline for when they want to implement the increases.
Calabria said it is not finalized but he feels the county and town will be in a good place. Can the town and the county come to an agreement and establish a better relationship in 2016?
Will growth continue in Cleveland?
There hasn’t been much discussion lately on whether the Cleveland community would incorporate, but it appears as the most logical decision for those against growth.
The Cleveland community has about 45,000 residents, and if it were to incorporate, would be the largest city or town in Johnston County. It would be nearly three times Clayton’s 17,500 residents.
The Cleveland community is often described as a Raleigh bedroom community and a quick restaurant stop right off Interstate 40 for vacationers on the way to the coast. With no visible downtown, its borders difficult to describe, Cleveland is an area that Johnston County has been targeting for more growth.
But residents who were drawn to Cleveland for its rural charm, now say it has become too crowded and spoke out against the growth in 2015.
County commissioners made decisions last year that could bring in almost 1,000 more homes. With the housing market picking back up, the trend of new houses in Cleveland is expected to continue. Some county commissioners have suggested its residents incorporate into a town, like Archer Lodge did, to control their own growth.
That possibility was discussed a few years ago, but many residents like not having to pay another tax. Whether the residents of the community decide to revisit the conversation will be a story to watch in 2016.
New superintendent, new direction?
Johnston County superintendent Ed Croom has announced he will retire in March.
While superintendent, Johnston County Schools grew to become the second largest school district in the Triangle with more than 34,600 students. And it’s still growing. Johnston County test scores are also some of the highest in the region.
The school board was sad to see Croom go.
When Croom retires, deputy superintendent Ross Renfrow will take over the reins. The school board said they wanted to hire internally so they could keep moving in the same direction. Renfrow has been deputy superintendent for two years now.
When Croom was hired, he didn’t have any prior experience as a superintendent either. However, there were not as many students in 2009.
Renfrow said he welcomes growth, but if it became too much, he would willing to look at measures that were proven to be successful for other school districts, while making sure the district is being responsible with taxpayer dollars.
He also wants to lower the dropout rate in Johnston County. In the past two years, 190 people dropped out of Johnston schools. He will look for ways to bring those students back into the school system and continue their education.
How Renfrow fares in his first year and the direction he decides to take Johnston County Schools will be a story to watch in 2016