Clayton leaders recently asked themselves an interesting question: Should the town fund or help fund essential road projects when state money isn’t available or falls short of what’s needed?
It’s a “yes” or “no” question, but it’s complicated, not only for Clayton but for any other Johnston town dreaming of new or wider roads.
One related question is whether road building is an essential town service. Over the years, we tried to convince former town manager Steve Biggs that Clayton didn’t need its own police force and didn’t need to own its electricity system. Those are services that we argued could be done more efficiently by county government or the private sector.
Mr. Biggs would acknowledge that Clayton residents might be paying more than they otherwise would for police protection and electricity. But when the power went out, he noted, a repair crew could be on site in minutes. As for police protection, Mr. Biggs said he would rather Clayton leaders shape policy than a sheriff sitting in Smithfield. By that, he meant Clayton might want to be more forgiving, or less forgiving, on some law enforcement matters than a countywide police force under the jurisdiction of a sheriff who might or might not see things the same way.
Whenever we chided the former manager that Clayton might be spending too much on this or too much on that, he always pointed to the quality of town services, which he equated with quality of life. That commitment to quality of life goes beyond locally managed police protection and electricity distribution. It’s reflected in a burgeoning parks system, in a growing greenway and in rotating public art.
No doubt, Clayton’s elected leaders see things much as Mr. Biggs did, so while they know that parks, for example, enhance Clayton’s quality of life, they likely see good roads in much the same light. Granted, parks and public art might be more personally satisfying than a four-lane South Connector, but no one stuck in Clayton traffic is enjoying good quality of life.
So it might make sense for Clayton to start supporting road projects financially, lest town roads become so congested that Clayton loses its attraction to newcomers.
But here are some considerations for Clayton leaders (and other towns interested in road building): If they start supporting road projects, do they start giving less to park development or the town’s greenway system or to the yearly displays of public art? If they say, “No, our commitment to the arts and parks is unwavering,” then Clayton leaders will have to take more money out of the pockets of Clayton taxpayers to help pay for roads. The question then is how much is too much before newcomers start avoiding a town with a tax-and-spend reputation.
Clayton leaders don’t want to hear this – Mr. Biggs certainly didn’t – but Clayton’s capacity to spend on parks and roads is diminished by the generous benefits paid to employees and retirees, including lifetime health insurance. And as Clayton’s payroll grows and people live longer in retirement, that capacity to support capital projects like road construction will only diminish more.
But that’s an argument for another day. What’s important now is that Clayton leaders know that if they decide to support road construction in and around town, they’re going to have to make some hard decisions on spending and taxes.