HF&R, HHS, ABC Store and MLIA get air time at retreat

By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper

Fiscally, all is more than well in Highlands.

At the town’s annual budget retreat last Thursday, Treasurer Rebecca Shuler presented her mid-year review and if figures continue to rise, by the close of FY ’22-’23 the town will be better off financially than ever before.

Property tax collections are at 99.28% with an increase in revenue compared to Feb. 2022 of $92,992.09;

Sales Tax revenue is already at $836,906.94 and have increased approximately $44,923.05 from February 2022;

Franchise Tax is at $83,267.87 and has increased by $18,773.26 from February 2022;

And the General Fund revenue is at $4,573,622.90 which is $133,499.10 more than compared to February 2022.

Town Manager Josh Ward opened by discussing the capital projects completed so far FY ’22-’23, projects in the pipeline and projects slated for FY ’23-’24.

Each department head presented a list of needs including “must haves” and “would love to haves.”

All of this will be discussed over the next several months until it is whittled down and the budget for ’23-’24 is finalized.

Meanwhile, there were four requests for action as soon as possible from Highlands Fire & Rescue, the Highlands Historical Society, the ABC Store and the Mirror Lake Improvement (Restoration) Association.

Highlands Fire & Rescue

HF&R Chief Ryan Gearhart said the department is ready to hire six full-time, paid employees.

“This is the next step for us,” said Gearhart. “We would like to hire three firefighter officers and three firefighters. It will cost just shy of $600,000 to fund six paid guys.”

According to Town Manager Josh Ward, after funding the new firehouse and equipment there is still enough left to start the full-time, paid firefighter program.

The new HFR station that will soon be staff with full-time firefighters.

“We actually have two years worth of monies to cover this while fire tax comes in,” he said. “At this point we can start this program with just the money we have in the bank. At year two, we will see if we need a fire tax increase.”

All over the state, full-time firefighters, work shifts – a certain amount of time on and a certain amount of time off.

Ward said they researched a number of surrounding towns to see what works best, and decided to copy what Cashiers has been doing.

“With our call volume, I feel like we can do 48 hours on and 96 hours off – two days on and four days off. Cashiers runs more calls than we do and they are operating that way and said the love it,” said Gearhart.

Gearhart said offering that kind of shift will open up the pool of candidates to beyond Macon County and working two days leaves four days to do something else.

Three full-time firefighters would get $41,340 per year based on $15 per hour and three officer firefighters would get $48,500 per year based on $17.60 per hour.

There will always be a shift officer firefighter teamed with a firefighter. The shift officer is responsible for everything that happens on that shift whether in the firehouse or at a fire – operations, maintenance, etc.

Officers have to have a minimum of five years experience plus various certifications. A firefighter has to have 2-3 years experience.

Highlands Fire & Rescue volunteers will continue as they are – responding and training – getting $15 per call.

“With full-time paid firefighters on the force, the volunteers won’t be responsible for cleaning and maintaining and we won’t have to have a ‘maintenance night’ like we do now,” said Gearhart. “The paid firefighters will take all that over.”

The board agreed to start the hiring process immediately instead of waiting until the next fiscal year which begins July 1.

“We have the money; we just need a budget amendment to start the hiring process. If they are ready to go, let’s go,” said Ward.

The budget amendment will be made at the March 16 Town Board meeting and the hiring process will begin.

Highlands Historical Society

President of the Highlands Historical Society Harry McDonald came to the meeting in hopes of getting the HHS in the budget for FY 23’-’24.

The interior of the HHS exhibit building on N. 4th Street next to the Rec Park grounds, has undergone huge changes while making room for extensive exhibits about the people and buildings in Highlands since its inception.

Highlands Historical Society campus on Grand Opening day in 2021.

Maintenance and repairs are made with monies raised through fundraisers like the Dahlia Festival and donations. The only paid person is the docent/bookkeeper.

“A significant percentage of our budget is for new exhibits and maintenance of the facilities,” said McDonald.

However, the roof and the ceiling is now sagging and engineers working in-kind, have determined that more than temporary steps need to be taken to make sure the building is stable and the exhibits and archives stored within are safe.

“An early estimate is $20,000 for the project but we are asking for a $10,000 grant to cover half the expense for the repairs,” said McDonald. “We are not asking for this grant for operations or entertainment. This is a one-time grant for a capital expenditure to house the town of Highlands historical archives.”

McDonald didn’t get an OK from the board but Commissioner Brian Stielher suggested requesting funding from the Chamber of Commerce/Visitor Center since it has millions in room tax proceeds at its disposal – some of which it gives to area nonprofits.

ABC Store

Steve Mehder, president of the ABC Board and Kevin Vinson, manager of the store, returned to the Town Board to discuss their plans to move the ABC Store to the old fire station on Oak Street.

Steve Mehder of the ABC Board and Kevin Vinson ABC Store manager explain changes to proposed ABC Store plan at the old fire station.

At the February Town Board meeting they presented plans for the move. They returned to discuss changes and to get permission to move ahead.

The old HFR station and the proposed location to move the ABC Store.

Taking over the old fire station would mean about twice the square footage they have now in Highlands Plaza and not paying rent would mean at least $400,000  a year to the town.

Mehder said over the years, with the permission from the town, the ABC Board has been saving money to accommodate future needs and the future is now.

With their rent set to double this summer, and no extra space for inventory or storage, the board is anxious to get the go-ahead from the town.

“We are hoping to exit in a timely basis,” said Mehder.

At the February meeting, Mehder presented plans which included enclosing the “courtyard” space between the two sides of the existing building. However, to cut costs, the board has decided to keep that as it is now – knowing that it could be enclosed later if necessary.

To save money, plans to enclose the “courtyard” area between the two sides of the building have been nixed.

“We have backed off on enclosing the courtyard as part of the building which will save us $300,000-$500,000 because it will reduce our costs in terms of the roof structure.”

The initial estimate to renovate the fire station to accommodate the ABC Store is about $1 million much of which Mehder said they have been able to “squirrel away” over the years.

“We have $830,000 squirreled away in our building fund,” said Vinson.

“Within two years we will be able to generate $400,000 a year or greater back to the town. Instead of us reserving the profits like in the recent past, we will be able to turn over money to the town to use,” he said.

More distributable income to the town’s scholarship fund, general fund and recreation dept. fund. Other disbursements mandated by the state are to law enforcement and drug and alcohol rehabilitation.

“Those are set in stone by the state, and they come off the net profits,” said Vinson. “But now there will be more to give to the town.”

Commissioners asked them to return to the March 16 Town Board meeting with revised plans now that they don’t intend to enclose the “courtyard” area.

Mirror Lake Restoration Project

Pat Gleeson, president of the Mirror Lake Improvement Association spoke to the board about the Mirror Lake Restoration Project which involves dredging the 70-year-old lake in phases — not to return it to its former glory, but to keep it from becoming a marsh.

In just a year, donations from the Highlands community and the residents of Mirror Lake, Mirrormont, Cullasaja Heights, Dobson Ridge, River Lakes and more, enough has been raised to complete Phase 1 of a three-phase plan which will cost between $400,000 and $500,000.

Phase one which is 250 yards upstream from the bridge and 250 yards downstream from the bridge and deepening those sections of water 8-10 feet.

“Our three-phase dredging plan starts with phase one which is 250 yards upstream from the bridge and 250 yards downstream from the bridge and deepening those sections of water 8-10 feet,” said Gleeson.

Phase 2 widens and deepens the two channels that flow out of Mill Creek around the large island that has formed over the years due to sediment for a cost of $2-$2.5 million.

Phase 3 picks up upstream of the Phase 1 all the way to Big Pine Acres and downstream around the bend down toward the dam.

Phase 3 picks up upstream of the Phase 1 all the way to Big Pine Acres and downstream around the bend down toward the dam.

“So, if you add all those numbers together that’s $4 or $5 million to complete all three phases,” said Gleeson.

The importance to save Mirror Lake has been a 3 ½ year commitment.

“I actually believe our collective efforts to save Mirror Lake is really more about preserving and protecting the Highlands watershed and the quality of drinking water that has become synonymous with living in Highlands,” Gleeson said, “Not to mention the recreation and natural resource assets of saving the lake.”

With close to a half a million dollars in hand, the Mirror Lake Restoration Project has hired Riversand as its dredging partner. Within 60-90 days Riversand will have secured the dredging permit and work on Phase 1 can begin, said Gleeson. Bryson Dredging will haul the material to wherever it can be deposited, which is being investigated now.

“The Phase 1 goal has been reached, but the overall goal is much larger than Phase 1,” he said.

According to Mayor Pat Taylor and Gleeson, after meeting with them, Senator Kevin Corbin and Representative Karl Gillespie have indicated there is some momentum with the state to participate financially.

State monies would be given to the town and the town would pay the bills associated with the Mirror Lake Restoration Project.

“I am optimistic that the state is going to come through with some contribution to this project,” said Mayor Taylor. “They did dredge Lake Junaluska – so that’s a model we are following.”

Gleeson asked that the town to consider putting a line item in its budget for Mirror Lake because maintenance – cleaning out of sediment traps – will be needed annually which he thinks can been done for $50,000-$75,000 a year.

Meanwhile to reach the $5 million goal to complete all three phases, Gleeson suggested a $250,000 line item in the town’s budget for Mirror Lake restoration.

Mayor Taylor said he believes the town needs to be a significant partner in the restoration of Mirror Lake.

“We have talked about this for years, but no one came up with the money. I think we are making progress in preserving Mirror Lake and not letting it turn into a marsh,” he said.

Last Thursday was the first of several upcoming FY ’23-’24 budget meetings and everyone’s wish list will be considered in the process.

Pictured at the top of the article is an aerial shot of the bridge at Mirror Lake.

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