Wishes and ‘needs’ discussed at Retreat

Each year it’s called a retreat but like the mayor said, it’s really a precursor to establishing the upcoming fiscal year’s budget.

Last week, the Town Board and town department heads gathered in Coleman Hall at First Presbyterian Church to hear wish lists from department heads for FY 2019-‘20 as well as the mid-year financial update from the town manager and treasurer.

The Highlands Town Board and town department heads gathered in Coleman Hall at First Presbyterian Church to hear wish lists from department heads for FY 2019-‘20 on March 28.

No surprise … Highlands is in good shape, in fact better than this time last year. 

As of February 2019, property tax collections have increased $41,370.21 compared to February 2018. Sales tax revenue has increased $34,276.30; Franchise Tax revenue is $1,587.53 and the  amount  of  General  Fund  revenues  collected  as  of  February  2019, is $325,231.43  more  compared  to  General Fund revenues collected as of February 2018.

Mayor Pat Taylor said healthy revenues are good since things “pop up like the water tank on Satulah, the water filter at the plant and damage from snow storms.”

As of Feb. 2019, budgeted revenue for all utility funds (the town’s enterprise funds) are at the required 66.6% – water is at 68%; sewer is at 67%; sanitation is at 66% and electric is at 74%. “We anticipate meeting our budgeted revenue for all utility funds,” said Treasurer Rebecca Shuler, “and all the expenditures in those departments are below the 66.6%.”

Town Manager Josh Ward said after the reval, property values rose 6% in the town limits, 6.25% in the township – which means 46% of county tax proceeds comes from Highlands and Highlands Township. 

Bear resistant toters were high on the agenda. 

“We have to upgrade the way we collect garbage considering the problem we have with bears and what we expect our sanitation workers to do,” said Mayor Taylor.

Town of Highlands Board of Commissioner Amy Patterson crawled inside a bear-resistant toter to see if a child could get out if accidentally latched inside at the town board retreat on March 28. She was able to open the latch from within.

Two bear-resistant toters were presented – a 96-gallon commercial toter and a 64-gallon residential toter.

The suggestion is that by ordinance, commercial toters will be required of all businesses. Commercial toters will do away with shared dumpsters which are also illegally “shared” by citizens driving by who often leave trash on top or fail to latch after they throw trash inside.

This behavior entices bad behavior from the bears which currently have run of the town.

The town is proposing buying 350 commercial bear-resistent toters for about $122,000. They will be available for purchase ($349) or for lease. The details are yet to be worked out. The proposal was sent to the Public Works Committee. 

The idea is to get rid of all dumpsters currently on the public right-of-way. “These are the dumpsters that are the problem,” said the mayor, “particularly on Oak Street.”

Residential bear-resistent toters were also discussed but buying 2,500 toters would cost the town $800,000 at $339 for a 64-gallon toter. Talk revolved around requiring residential toters as in the commercial district and perhaps finding a smaller version for residents. 

The toters in the residential district would take care of the bear problem in neighborhoods and would also save the backs of sanitation workers who make 1,250 stops each day they pick up an array of cans.

A uniformed bear-resistant can that could be rolled out and picked up by a mechanism on the garbage truck could alleviate the bear problem and decrease back injuries in the sanitation department.

Ordinances and uniformity in garbage receptacles is part of being a BearWise community.  Meanwhile, the town’s 40 bear-proof cans have been ordered and will be installed on sidewalks and in other public areas in about five weeks. 

“We are advanced when it comes to dealing with bears,” said the mayor, “but this has to be a comprehensive effort. We can set the standard for other communities. But there is no magic bullet. This will cost money.”

The Public Works Committee was tasked with developing protocols and an ordinance to address bear/toter concerns in the business district. The residential issue will be addressed later. 

A possible increase in the fire tax will likely help fund the renovations to the fire department building. Highlands has the lowest fire tax in the county. Residential units in the new building will be included for potential full-time, paid firefighters.

Fire Chief Ryan Gearhart said it’s time the town move to full-time, 24-hour coverage using full-and part-time personnel as well as its volunteers.

“We are behind in staffing compared to Franklin and even Cashiers,” he said. “I would like six people to cover a 24-hour shift.”

Franklin has six full-time and 5-6 part-time paid employees. 

The department has been putting aside money for the past six years with the new building in mind. Thursday, the commissioners allocated that $80,000 to get the engineering plans started.

It will cost $2.5-$3 million to build the new complex. The town will borrow the money and pay it back with the fire tax over an extended period of time.

Gearhart said cancer is a big deal in the firefighter world due to the chemicals used and breathing in the exhaust from the trucks. The new building will be properly vented for each bay. 

The possibility of erecting radar signs around town was discussed but didn’t go over very well. Various programmable flashing speed limit signs were discussed but no one liked the idea of them being planted around town.

“I don’t like them period,” said Commissioner Donnie Calloway. 

“I’d be OK with one or two, but don’t like the idea of them being all around town,” said Commissioner Brian Stiehler. 

“Talk about intrusive government… this is it,” said Commissioner Amy Patterson.

In the end, they agreed to perhaps install one or two at highly used and dangerous intersections like Little Bear Pen. The idea was sent to the Public Safety Committee. 

Money to fix the underdrain water filter at the water plant was allocated – $160,000 – and then replacing the same part in the second filter for $200,000 was considered before it, too, breaks. It is the filter being used while the other is being fixed. And finally, the installation of a third filter at the cost of $1.5 million was discussed. 

Public Works Director Lamar Nix also laid out his paving plan for Satulah/Worley, Cullasaja Drive, Oak Lane and Hickory Hill. The total would be about $600,000.

He also explained the costs of the Split Rail Water improvement project – $876,000; and electric department capital needs.

MIS/GIS Director Matt Shuler requested $124,000 for various additions including a vehicle, a ground penetrating radar system, and replacement components in the SCADA system at the sewer plant.

The Police Dept. requested a replacement vehicle, cruiser equipment and sound meters for $82,000.

The Rec Dept.  wants to replace/resurface the tennis courts, purchase two workout machines and replace the pool slide for a total of about $150,000.

The only monies allocated Thursday were those to repair the underdrain filter at the water plant and to begin the engineering plans for the fire department building.

Everything else will be the discussed during upcoming budget meetings. The first one is April 11.

“We have strong reserve funds and we have some real needs,” said the mayor. “We clearly have some pressing items so if we need to cut into our reserves we will do it.”

The town has $4 million in the General Fund Reserve and $4 million in the Enterprise Fund Reserve.

Pictured at the top of article is Town of Highlands Public Works Director Lamar Nix demonstrating some of the features of the proposed bear resistant toters at the town board retreat on March 28.

  • By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

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