The town is lucky to be growing, but slowly enough that it’s manageable, Mayor Bill Sutton said in his first State of the Town address Thursday.
Sutton spoke to more than 50 local business and community leaders at a breakfast hosted by the Apex Chamber of Commerce. Over the course of 90 minutes he touched on taxes, roads, schools, utilities and the town’s lobbying efforts at the General Assembly.
Everything in store for the town, good and bad, Sutton said, can be traced back to its steadily growing populace.
The town’s growth slowed to 4.1 percent in 2014, which has been the goal for years, Sutton said. While growth brings crowded roads and schools, he said, it also brings better shopping and dining options, more parks and a stable local government.
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“Low tax rate, money in the bank,” Sutton said, describing the town’s finances. “It’s been that way for a while, and that’s pretty good.”
But he said there are several bills in the General Assembly this session that could threaten that status.
At the urging of Paul Levering, chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, Sutton said the town will build a website for residents to find information about the bills, as well as contact information for legislators.
To get people politically active, Levering said, “the first thing you’ve got to overcome is apathy. And if you overcome apathy, you need information.”
Roads, roads, roads
One bill Apex leaders are watching would give control of many N.C. Department of Transportation-controlled roads and highways to towns, including Apex.
Local leaders approve the measure, Sutton said, as long as the state also gives towns the money that would have gone to DOT for the same projects.
“We’re closer to the problems – the potholes, the snow,” he said.
But he said to get that money, legislators would likely need to raise the gas tax. While Sutton was speaking, the N.C. Senate voted in favor of a plan that would raise the tax while cutting 500 jobs at DOT, leading to an extra $1.2 billion over the next four years.
During a question-and-answer session, Wes Moyer, who works for Woodmen of America, asked if development will outpace work on country roads not suited to heavy traffic.
“What you are probably concerned about is connector roads like Olive Chapel ... and that’s why we want control,” Sutton said. “So we can do something with it.”
Taxes and the General Assembly
Sutton said another bill Apex residents should watch is a change in how the state redistributes sales tax income.
The proposal to give rural counties more of the sales tax income would cost Apex $1 million a year, or the equivalent of 2 cents on the property tax rate, Sutton said.
He said many residents need to lobby legislators about that issue, though with policy debates, he added, it’s rarely easy to sway them.
The past few years, Sutton said, have been especially difficult to get the General Assembly to work with small towns.
The Republican-led legislature recently has attempted to take regulatory power, buildings and infrastructure away from local governments.
Citing recent controversies in Charlotte and Asheville, Sutton said he’s worried legislators might next turn their eyes toward a $280-million water treatment plant in Apex built last year by Apex, Cary and Morrisville.
“We hope you tell your legislators, ‘Leave us alone. We’re doing OK. Do no harm,’ ” Sutton told the crowd.
He also asked for opposition to a bill that would limit cities’ abilities to regulate the design and appearance of new buildings.
“There’s a lot of things that we put on that developers and homebuilders – and I know there’s some of you here – consider onerous,” Sutton said. “But we’ve got some pretty nice neighborhoods ... we don’t want to look like a factory town.”
There is plenty of room for expansion, Sutton said, so issues like that matter deeply going forward. The town’s limits encompass about 17 square miles, and there are another 17 square miles of yet-to-be developed land in the town’s outlying areas.
Fiber and Veridea
If the town continues expanding at its current 4-percent rate, it will hit a population of 94,000 by 2030, Sutton said.
That’s more than double its 2014 population estimate of about 45,000 people, which he said is “amazing to think about.”
But the town’s tax base is about 80 percent residential, and Sutton wants to reduce that by adding industrial and business development.
“RTP and Raleigh provide the jobs; we provide the houses,” he said. “We’d like to get in on providing the jobs. That’s why we hired an economic developer.”
He said Veridea, a 1,000-acre tract of land south of town, could be an excellent source of that kind of development.
Google Fiber, recent approved in neighboring Cary, was also discussed.
Town Manager Bruce Radford said there’s virtually no chance of Apex piggybacking on Google’s plans to bring Fiber to nearby cities such as Cary and Raleigh. But AT&T will continue expanding its equally fast U-Verse network in Apex, Radford said.
He said an AT&T representative attended Sutton’s speech and will be meeting with town officials this week.
“Without giving anything away, there’s good news coming,” Radford said.