Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Public Facilities cost trimmed, still requires 15% tax bill increase

In a jam packed agenda on Tuesday, Davidson Commissioners heard an update on Town Hall's new public facilities plan - the plan Commissioners are unlikely to let citizens vote on via a GO bond.

Here's what changed as far as costs go.

Not much in the way of change as far as the cost of the plan. (Note: The first cut at preliminary analysis has a 35% soft cost number.  These use 30%.)

This slide compares the Davidson plan with the Cornelius Town Hall project from 1999.

Notice, Davidson is building a bigger Town Hall than Cornelius for a 20 year projected Davidson population that will still be significantly smaller than what Cornelius has now.  That means for the next 20 years Davidson Town Hall will have some relatively palatial digs on a per capita basis compared to its more thrifty neighbor.

And how much will this cost the taxpayer?

"Payment of debt service relies on 15% increase in ad valorem tax revenue due to 2019 revaluation"

That statement came from the finance impact presentation for the project.  Here's what that means.

In 2019 Mecklenburg County will do its required property tax revaluation.  Per Piet Swart, the Town Finance Director, Davidson expects the reval to say property values in Davidson have gone up well more than 15% since the last valuation.  He didnt give a more exact number.

If Davidson was to keep its property tax collections revenue neutral, it would have to lower its tax rate to bring in the same dollars based on the new higher valuations.  Currently, Davidson is at 35c/$1000 in value.  To pay for the new Town Hall without a rate increase Davidson will have to "capture" at least a 15% increase in revenue by not lowering the rate enough to keep tax collections revenue neutral.

So, let's be very clear...

If you ever hear someone from Town Hall say the new Town Hall project is being paid for without a tax increase, they are lying to you.

The tax rate might not go up.  It might even go down slightly after the revaluation, but if it does not go down enough to keep collections revenue neutral, then it is a de facto tax increase.  You will be paying 15% more on your Davidson tax bill to pay for the public facilities project as it was presented Tuesday - all without being allowed to vote on it.

However, also to be very clear, even if you were allowed to vote on a bond for this project, if the costs didn't change, the same math would apply.  Bonds aren't free money.  They have to be repaid, so the same tax increase would be needed.

What voters would really be voting on (if allowed) is this question.

Does Davidson Town Hall really need a facility this size and scope when compared to its neighbors?

If the answer is "no", then Town Hall just has to come up with a better, more economic plan.  If the answer is "yes" then the taxes go up.

To his credit, Commissioner Jim Fuller seems to be the only Commissioner willing to ask that question to voters.  Last week, aShortChronicle asked the five Commissioners if they supported putting the New Town Hall funding up for a GO bond.  Four of them replied, all saying "no" to that question.  The one who did not reply to the email was Jim Fuller.

On Tuesday night, Fuller was the only one to broach the subject of putting this up for a GO bond.  He pointed out that this project is bigger than the Town's annual budget as justification.  That's the same point made in this post from aShortChronicle - "GO Bonds: Where is the line?"

Regardless of how this ultimately turns out, and frankly it's not looking good for voters, it's nice to see at least one of the electeds seems to "get it".  For that, aShortChronicle would like to thank Commissioner Fuller for standing up for voters when the rest of the Board clearly will not.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Beaty Street: Newly disclosed documents conflict with Mayor Woods's Statements

Last week just hours before Davidson Town Hall hosted a roundtable discussion in hopes of quieting opponents of the Beaty Street RFP process, documents began circulating online that appeared to contradict the Town Hall party line that no documentation existed showing the property was originally intended to be a park.  Opponents of the RFP process and the planned "Luminous" mixed use project at the 19 acre Beaty Street site have long been saying this property was intended to be a park.  Some have even taken to calling the property "Promised Park" in reference to that original intent, so these documents came as a welcome vindication of that position.

In addition to the documents flying around, the below video of Mayor John Woods from what appears to be a Chat at the Egg was also posted.  In the video after being asked directly about the Beaty property being purchased by the town for a park, Mayor Woods very clearly says no such documentation exists.

Click HERE for video
Mayor Woods's statement that no documentation exists flies in the face of these documents that say otherwise.  These refer to the deed and the purchase contract when the largest portion of the property was purchased by the town in 1985.

Even more revealing of the intent is this letter from December 1984 from the son of the former landowner to the town.

Then, there is also this email from Town staff obtained via public records request.

In an attempt to get some clarity on the issue aShortChronicle asked the Town the following question last Thursday.

"Can the Town comment on the inconsistency between these documents and Mayor Woods's statement in the video."  (Note: at the time of the question, just the first documents were sent.)

Here is the response from Town Attorney Cindy Reid.

"The purchase offer from the Town of Davidson to the seller stated: “There must be no restrictions, easement, zoning, or other governmental regulations that would prevent the reasonable use of the real property for park, play ground or other public recreational purposes.” While this requirement was for the singular purpose of making sure that restrictions did not exist that would prevent the property’s use as a park, no requirement for use as a park was included.  By no means does that language require or commit use of the property as a park.  Conditions requiring no restrictions on property are standard. The property was deeded to the Town of Davidson  without restrictions which means it can be used for any purpose (as long as that purpose meets the underlying zoning requirements)."

You'll notice this response does not really address the question asked, but it does give a lot of insight into how this Town Hall does business.

Also, take a look closely at the above documents regarding the deed and the letter.  The note regarding the deed and the letter are from/to former long-time Davidson Town Attorney, Rick Kline.  Kline resigned his position at the end of June 2016.

Additional public records show Kline was consulted on the Beaty Street RFP before he left.  Furthermore, aShortChronicle has learned through researching this post that the Town has "paid Rick Kline $10,453 since July 1, 2016 for projects related to the planning department, town attorney, and real estate."

So, not only are there documents regarding the intent of this property to be used as a park, but those documents involve a former Town Attorney who has been involved in this project from the RFP stage.

Davidson Commissioners will discuss the project at tonight's Board meeting.  The question before them should be if they will honor the original intent for this property, or will they do what they want?

Monday, May 22, 2017

Buildings, Budget, Beaty, and Bonds...Major items on Davidson agenda Tuesday

In what could be the most impactful agenda in years, Davidson Commissioners will discuss major items at the Tuesday board meeting.

They will receive updates on the following:
  1. Town Budget and Capital Improvement Plan
  2. Beaty Street RFP
  3. Public Facilities Plans
  4. GO Bonds (non Public Facilities)
Commissioners will also discuss a letter to Mooresville expressing concerns over Mooresville's plans to approve zoning for the massive Lake Davidson neighborhood.

All of these topics have been covered extensively here at aShortChronicle.  Seeing them on the same agenda gives the distinct impression this Board is trying to wrap up its overall agenda for Davidson rather quickly.

There is only one more meeting in June prior to filing for the November elections.  Filing starts July 7th.

The Commissioner work session starts at 4pm with the regular meeting at 6pm.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

$10-15 million in GO bonds under discussion by Davidson Board

 Saturday morning's post told you how Davidson's Board doesn't plan to allow voters to vote on a new Town Hall - the largest single expenditure since Mi-Connection.  However, the Board does appear ready to proceed on a bond package to handle a whole slew of other items.

As far as aShortChronicle can tell, the first time this bond package was discussed in any detail at a televised Board Meeting, was just last week on May 9th.  It will also be discussed at their upcoming May 23rd meeting.  If the Board moves forward with it Commissioners will have to vote to start the process at their June 13th meeting by passing multiple resolutions needed to get it on the November ballot.

That would seem to be lightening fast movement for something like this.

The bond presentation included in the Tuesday agenda shows 2 options

The presentation also includes a list of possible projects for the money - emphasis on the word possible.  The reason that's the case is if passed the Town wouldn't have to strictly abide by the list.  As long as a project fits into one of the broad categories it could be completed.  Also notice, on the below list there are more total projects on the list than bonds in either of the above bond offerings.  That means even if passed there would not be enough bond money to do all of the possible projects.

However, you can be sure as the Town starts selling this package they will be pushing it as if all of them certainly will be completed.  That's how bond packages get passed - include something for everyone in a list so voters support the bonds then once the bonds are passed only do what the governing body really wants to do.

Effectively, this list really just says "trust us".

People often forget that bond money is not free money.  It does have to be paid back.  So, what will this do to the tax rate?  That's a question the Town is legally obligated to answer when making a bond proposal.

The numbers presented above would have Davidson's taxes potentially going up anywhere from 2.18 - 3.62 cents per $100 of assessed value.  According to the median home value for Davidson is $325,000, so that translates to a potential tax increase of $70.85 to $117.65 per year for the median home.

Boiled down, this proposal combined with Commissioners not letting voters vote on the new Town Hall says this to the public.

"Here is a list of high dollar items we want your permission to build, but you'll just have to "trust us" on what will actually get built.  Also, we need to raise taxes 6-11% to do it.  However, at the same time we don't trust you enough to support a new Town Hall, so we aren't going to let you vote on that."

Saturday, May 20, 2017

GO Bonds: Where is the line?

After the last post about Davidson Commissioners likely not putting funding of a new Town Hall and expanded public safety facilities on a GO bond, a long time reader asked a couple of questions.

1.  If the town could fund these things without a tax increase, why should it go to a GO bond vote?

2.  What's the threshold for spending before it should go to the citizens for a vote regardless of how it is funded?

To the first question, when Davidson already has the highest tax rate and solid waste fee compared to its neighbors by significant margins, just saying a major spending item won't require a further tax increase frankly is not good enough.

To the second question, as far as a set dollar amount before going to voters, one could say anything more than 75% of a year's general fund budget might be the line under normal circumstances for a relatively wealthy town like Davidson.  Some  people might go as high as 100%.  We here at aShortChronicle are big fans of small-d democracy whenever feasible, so setting the threshold lower feels better for a small town.  The target percentage might also change over time as the general fund budget grows and the percentage should definitely be lower for non-core services.  One would also have to consider the overall debt burden of the town.

Using that math, the new Town Hall with the necessary contingency would qualify for a vote by the numbers presented by the Creech/Stantec consulting team.

$9.189m + 30% contingency = $11.95m.  Next year's proposed general fund budget is $11m, so you are way over the proposed threshold regardless of whether or not you use the 75% or 100% of general fund percentage.

In the particular scenario before Davidson now, one has to factor in the $1.8m remodel of Town Hall for public safety needs as well.  This could and should be covered out of the town's excess reserves.  Public safety is a core service and should be covered automatically.  However, in this case it is linked to the new Town Hall piece of the project.  (Remodeling the existing Town Hall for public safety means the other staff does need a place to sit.)  To do both, the Board should either get the cost of the New Town Hall piece down to a lower level to not necessarily need a vote or reduce it enough to be confident it would pass with a majority of voters on a GO bond.

Incidentally, another reader who is very familiar with estimating construction projects told aShortChronicle today "letting the architect create the budget for a project is like Col. Sanders guarding the chickens. Two story Town Hall, 16,000 sf, $275/sf including furniture and contingencies. No piazza, no loggia, no Farmer's Market, no relocated playground, etc. $5 million."

If the town was in that ballpark we likely wouldn't even be having this conversation about a bond vote for it.

All that said, that would all be under normal circumstances, and Davidson (like it or not) is not really there due to Mi-Connection and other more recent decisions/plans.

The Board can ignore that reality if it wants, but the public won't.

The town's out of pocket real annual expense for Mi-Connection has dropped $300k over the past couple of years since they are no longer putting extra money aside for the added obligation to Mooresville under the two towns' current deal, but there has never been a serious word spoken about giving anything back to taxpayers.  There may have been legitimate public safety needs for that money and that's not really being questioned here.  However, it factors into the overall situation.

There is a growing trust problem with Town Hall among a significant portion of the citizens.  That's evidenced by the significantly dropping scores in the governing section of the recent National Citizen Survey.

Overall direction down 26 pts.
Confidence in town govt down 15 pts
Acting in best interest of town down 18pts
Being honest down 13 pts
Treating all residents equally down 11 pts

1 in 4 rate Davidson's direction "poor".

Even if those categories overall are still positive, the direction is not.  Furthermore, that change in direction has happened on this Board's watch pretty much entirely due to their own actions.

If official Towndom is concerned citizens might not pass a bond for something truly important, that official Towndom has nobody but itself to blame.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Surprise!!! No GO Bond Vote on New Town Hall say Davidson Commissioners

aShortChronicle has been following up on the possibility of Davidson's first ever General Obligation (GO) bond vote, and the results will likely surprise readers.

As reported earlier the initial cost estimates for the project came in just at $17 million including a 30% contingency.  Here is the breakdown.

As the headline to this post indicates however, there will be no bond vote to fund the bulk of the Public Facilities project based on a very direct question posed to Commissioners on Thursday/Friday of this week.  Commissioners were asked their position on "putting the proposed new/remodel expenses for Town Hall/Public Safety facilities on the ballot via GO bonds."

As of Friday afternoon at 5pm 4 of 5 say they do not support the idea. (one commissioner did not respond)

All of the responses echo the same theme, rationalizing not going to the voters because this effort includes money for public safety and those are "essential services".  As elected officials they say their job is provide such services.

It should be noted however the renovation of the existing Town Hall from the above list is the portion of the bill to accommodate public safety.   That is just $1.8m out the $10.989m of overall proposed spending to house Town staff (not counting contingency) .  Said another way, the 16% of the spending needed for public safety is being leveraged to justify not going to voters for the other 84% for the rest of Town staff and some public meeting space.  Of course, some level of space is also necessary for these services, but it appears voters won't get a say in that part either.

It should also be noted that aShortChronicle has confirmed the project was discussed at a Tuesday evening Public Facilities Working Group meeting.  However, at the time of this writing more detail is not available on what was discussed.  The agenda for the May 23rd Board work session does include an update on this, but no attached detail is yet posted on the agenda.  Check here to see if that has changed.

There is always the possibility the overall Public Facilities project may be reconfigured to make it more palatable if voters will not be allowed to weigh in at the ballot box.  Maybe, it will be scaled back significantly.  Maybe, there will be some super creative financing to minimize the cost.  Maybe...

(For the record, aShortChronicle has never questioned the need for better Public Safety facilities or the spending required to achieve them.  However, it is extremely disappointing that the Board is using that need to justify not putting unrelated spending on the ballot.)

In their responses to aShortChronicle, Commissioners did indicate they favored pulling the last 4 items from the above list and putting them before voters as part of a bigger separate bond package along with a whole slew of other spending.

So, here is where we are at this point.

Voters very likely won't be allowed to have a say in a new Town Hall and public safety facilities spending, but they possibly will get to vote on an assortment of other items that could add many millions more in public spending.

Surprised yet?

Check back later this weekend for more on the items where Davidson Town Hall might be gracious enough to let you have a say at the ballot box.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Beaty Street Last Chance for Public Input...It's now or never

Last month, Davidson Town Hall postponed the looming decision on its planned sale of the 19 acre town owned property on Beaty Street - a property the Town has owned for decades.  The plan on the table would sell the property to a group named Davidson Development Partners for a high density mixed use project called "The Luminous".

To that end, tomorrow night, Wednesday May 17th, the Town will hold a round table discussion from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Davidson College Presbyterian Church’s Congregation House (218 Concord Road).

The idea behind the delay and this one last comment opportunity was to convince the public that Town Hall truly cares about public input by allowing one more opportunity for the public to give that input.  But make no mistake about it, if the public doesn't show up, the Town will sell this property, and it will bring significantly more density and traffic to this already congested area.

It won't matter that just this past week Mooresville's Planning Board approved a rezoning supporting  massive development just down the road from the Beaty Street site.  It won't matter that hundreds of local residents have joined on Facebook to oppose the sale of the land and to propose alternatives.  It won't matter that the recent National Citizen Survey shows scores for Davidson Town Hall dropping like a rock.

If people don't take a couple of hours and show up Wednesday evening to tell the Town "the Luminous is not for us", this Town Board is very likely approve it and move forward.

Why don't the above things matter when they so obviously should?  Why would the Town proceed in the face of them?

The reason is simple.  Your government goes to those who show up.

If the Davidson public doesn't show up on Wednesday, then Davidson Town Hall will do what it wants.  They've proven time and again that is how they operate.  Staff and elected officials will say "silence is acceptance" even though the facts on the ground say otherwise.

Do not let them off the hook so easy.

Bonus Observation: Mayoral candidate Laurie Venzon has officially made this decision an election year issue - posting this to Facebook on Saturday.

"Great tour of the Beaty St property this morning. Sure hope the town board rethinks the current proposal. It's way too much development for this area."

Staking out that position just before the vote could make things interesting.