Southwest Wake News

Morrisville leaders talk budget plans, capital projects

Town leaders have for years picked large projects from a capital improvements list containing dozens of multi-million-dollar ideas.

But Town Council members indicated at their annual retreat last month that they want to winnow down the list and start taking action on the highest-priority ideas.

“First, I think we need to reduce the number of projects,” said Kris Gardner, a council member. “Five, 10, whatever it is.”

The town’s current capital improvements plan is 129 pages long and contains 32 potential projects.

Many of the large projects Morrisville leaders have on the drawing board are road improvements. Others include a new fire station, a Civil War park, a senior center and several parks and greenways.

“I think there are some projects on there that are just taking up space,” Mayor Mark Stohlman said. “We’re never going to do them.”

Council member Michael Schlink added that whittling down the list should be a transparent process. He said that will help residents be informed in the likely case the town asks voters to approve a bond referendum for those projects.

There are several ways for local governments to pay for massive projects that fall outside the scope of their annual budgets. The Town Council could vote to raise property tax rates unilaterally or ask citizens to vote on a bond, which would gradually raise taxes if voters approve it.

“I like a bond referendum instead, although maybe you want to be the council that raises taxes by 6 cents,” Schlink said.

Morrisville residents overwhelmingly passed a bond in 2012, giving the town $20 million to update the Morrisville Community Park and Morrisville Aquatics and Fitness Center, and to extend McCrimmon Parkway from N.C. 54 to Evans Road.

Jeanne Hooks, the town’s budget director, cautioned against relying solely on bonds if the council wants to make big strides.

“I think maybe one of the reasons we struggle with getting things out there and making decisions is because we struggle funding things,” Hooks said. “... I think we need to think of other ways. What is that other way? I hate to say it, but it relates to tax rate.”

The town’s property tax rate is 39 cents per $100 in valuation. Only two Wake County municipalities, Cary and Fuquay-Varina, have lower rates.

Tony Chiotakis, the town’s director of community services, cautioned council members not to get caught up in road projects. Those can be paid for by grants and are often the responsibility of the state, he said.

“It is a large topic,” he said of the town’s often-congested roads. “It is on residents’ minds. We alone can’t fix it, however.”

Tim Gauss, the town’s director of development services, said council members often do good research before voting on big projects. But he said that research can sometimes lead to indecision, and plans left lingering for years.

Town Manager Martha Wheelock said she thought the retreat, where officials gathered in a conference room for three days of frank and far-ranging discussions, helped the council break through some of the political barriers that slowed action in the past.

“The dynamic has been so positive,” she told the council on the last day. “I think there’s something about being at a square table, rather than a podium, that changes the ability to talk to each other.”

Stohlman said as far politics is concerned, voters tend to like action over discussion anyway.

“We have a full plate in front of us the next couple of years,” he said. A lot of things are coming together. And sometimes it’s not about planning, per se, but executing what’s already in front of you.

“You can have the greatest plans in the world,” Stohlman said. “But if you can’t execute, people get frustrated with you.”

The council will soon be jumping into budget discussions. The next budget must be finished by June, and public hearings will be held this spring to hear from residents on their own priorities.