Thursday, June 26, 2014

How Davidson Failed to Have a Special Meeting on HOT Lanes

There's been a lot of activity and swirl around the I77 HOT lanes project the past week - activity generated by the release of additional information from NCDOT - prior to Thursday's signing of the Commercial Close of the deal.

Here in Davidson much of that activity was around the request for a Special Meeting of Davidson's Town Board to discuss seeking a possible delay in signing the Commercial Close on the project until this new information could be clarified.  The need for the special meeting (if one was going to be had) stemmed at least in part from a post on this site last week.  Since we reported that this special meeting was not going to be held, aShortChronicle has obtained emails from the Town of Davidson detailing how that decision was reached.

There is much more in the documents received than the below set of emails, and it does appear there will be a sincere effort to hold a joint meeting with NCDOT and other area elected officials - possibly in early July 7th in Cornelius. Also, as part of the documents received, a list of detailed questions was compiled primarily by Commissioner Anderson and submitted for response to NCDOT.   Both of these are very good things towards getting clarification and updated information.

As for how Davidson's Board decided to not have a special meeting on the subject, that's a different matter.  There is definitely some room for improvement there.  Below are the relevant email selections on that.

Emails in time sequence starting with Comm Cashion's original request.
 Comm Jenest's response to Comm Cashion's original request...

Comm Fuller's response to Comm Cashion's original request...

Mayor Woods's response to Comm Cashion's original request...

Comm Graham's response to Comm Cashion's original request...

Comm Jenest's response to Comm Graham...

Comm Anderson's response to Mayor Woods (There was no direct response to Comm Cashion's initial request in the documents received)...

Without commenting too much on the individual responses, it appears that Mayor Woods had the strongest objection to having a special meeting to discuss this issue of a delay.  The extensive use of bold and underlining in his response being the clear indication of that.  Readers are strongly encouraged to go back and read that one a second time paying attention to the tone of it.  His frustration at even being asked for a meeting and having this conversation is palpable.

As for the Commissioner emails, readers can decide for themselves who gave this issue the most thought.

We'll leave our comments at that on the responses to the special meeting request.  We here at aShortChronicle would not want to be accused (again) of spreading misinformation or engaging in hyperbole.

Bonus Observation: Davidson's adopted Rules of Procedure require the Mayor or any three commissioners to call a special meeting.  This appears to be in conflict with the North Carolina general statute GS 161A-71 governing these meetings. That statute says the Mayor, the Mayor Pro-Tem, or any two commissioners can call a special meeting.  If Davidson was following the General Statute on this issue, both alternatives for who can call a special meeting were met.  Commissioner Beth Cashion is Mayor Pro-Tem and Commissioner Stacey Anderson provided the second needed request.

To eliminate the kind of heavy-handed response exhibited here by the Mayor against reasonable requests from Commissioners to call these meetings if needed, the Board should update their rules of procedure to be in line with State requirements.

Updated: Spin Continues by NCDOT on I77 HOT Lanes Contract (right up until closing)

The spin masters over at NCDOT are at it again with the most recent excuse as to why HOT lane contractor, Cintra, won't release total amounts prior to signing the contract.

The reason?  Effectively, the answer is "we always do it this way."

According to NCDOT....

"Bids are not required to be released until an actual agreement is signed so it's nothing unique to this particular project."

In this case toll rates are part of the "bid".

Unfortunately for the NCDOT, there is something unique about this project.  It is a variable rate tolling project - the first in North Carolina!

Listen, the whole point of a tolling project is to pass through the cost to the end user.  In other projects the NCDOT is effectively the end user, and they are privy to the details around cost.  In a tolling project the end-user is the commuter and not releasing these details is forcing them to accept a product without knowing the cost.

Update:  And the spin continued right up until the day the NCDOT signed the commercial close on the project today.  A sad day for our state and for residents of Lake Norman in particular.  How do you like being treated as guinea pigs?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Fuzzy Math Continues on HOT Lanes

It's not surprising that once the information NCDOT possessed on the projected costs of the I77 HOT became public, that the bureaucracy would go into full fledged spin mode.  That appears to be what happened yesterday as the date for signing the 50 year contract with the Spanish contracting firm, Cintra, looms later this week.

One could expect that to happen when the story went statewide stating roundtrip tolls would be in the $20/day range when the new lanes open.

WBT radio reported Monday some unnamed source from NCDOT saying "the tolls would end up being substantially lower - about $2 per trip".

$2 versus $10?  Reeeeeeaallly?  That does sound like a bargain!

But is it realistic?  Here are a few other numbers.

How many cars per day would need to pay $4 round trip on the HOT lanes to just cover the interest on the financing and give Cintra any sort of ROI?  To keep it simple, the below chart combines Cintra ROI and the financing interest rate and applies the same percentage to both.  Since these are likely going to be Triple-B bonds and Cintra as a private company probably demands a greater ROI than the below chart states, these numbers for required round trips per day are likely low.

Note: This is for the interest only.  No payoff of the bond principle or return of the capital.

Who knows?  Maybe this is what Cintra is planning on doing, but if so we can likely expect the same result as they are getting on their toll road in Texas.  See here for the story published just this past Saturday on that debacle.

What's more troubling is that Cintra won't release the details of their supposedly updated study on usage and toll rates until after the contract is signed.  According to this Time Warner report..."Cintra's most recent study on toll costs with revised estimates won't be released until the company signs the contract"

Channeling your best Nancy Pelosi, please say "we have to sign the contract before we know what's in it."

We all know how well that approach works out.

Monday, June 23, 2014

In NC-98 Race, Natasha Marcus Racks Up Support from Several Davidson Board Members

Davidson resident and Democratic Party NC-98 House Candidate Natasha Marcus is holding a fundraiser Tuesday night at the Wooden Stone gallery on South Main Street.  Below is the flyer for the event.

Sponsors for the event include several members of Davidson's Board - Commissioners Rodney Graham, Jim Fuller, and Brian Jenest as well as Mayor John Woods. 
Just thought readers might want to know who many of their local officials are supporting in this race.

Bonus Observation: This event happens to be at the same time as the usual Davidson Board work sessions. Those work sessions are on Summer hiatus, but this time could have been used to hold the requested Special Meeting on HOT lanes desired by Commissioners Cashion and Anderson - the only two Commissioners not sponsoring this event.  That request failed to get support from Mayor Woods or any of the other Commissioners.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Effort to Hold Special Meeting on HOT Lanes Falls Short in Davidson

As reported on Thursday, for Davidson's Town Board to hold a special meeting early next week regarding the new information on HOT Lanes for I77, the meeting needed to be called by Friday to ensure proper notice.  It appears that effort has fallen short.

We have confirmed that Mayor Pro-Tem Beth Cashion and Commissioner Stacey Anderson both asked for this meeting to occur.  However, it has also been confirmed that it will not happen - at least as of this writing.  Under the town's current Rules of Procedure only the Mayor or three Commissioners can call a special meeting.

The lack of a meeting would appear to mean Mayor Woods and none of the other three Commissioners agreed with Mayor Pro-Tem Cashion and Commissioner Anderson.

We will be working to find out more details on exactly how Mayor Woods and the other Commissioners responded to this request to discuss new information regarding this most important project.

There is more to this story, so stay tuned.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Accountability Time for Davidson's Board on HOT Lanes

Last week, Kurt Naas posted some shocking information over at regarding the selected proposal from Cintra to widen I77 with HOT lanes.  It took a Freedom of Information Act request and enlisting the help of WSOC TV to get this information out of NCDOT, and it's not hard to imagine why.  The numbers are absolutely horrible!

  • $20+ initial daily tolls to travel the length of the HOT lanes with tolls rising to $40+ per day by the end of the project
  • $13 BILLION in tolls collected over the life of the project
  • $75 million in guaranteed revenue from the State if the toll revenue falls short

In this information we also find out some disappointing details.

  • Only one proposal was received for the project.  That is the real reason Cintra was picked. They were the only team to submit a proposal!  (Four teams were originally selected to bid on the project, but only one proposal was submitted.  That means three of the four teams couldn't make the numbers work!)
  • The entrance and exit points still are not set in stone and can be changed.  That is one of the most important details of the entire project for people to determine if it is beneficial to them.  (One thing we do know is that the proposed entrance/exit points do not directly benefit Davidson.)
  • Traffic is expected to double in the existing free lanes.  The HOT lanes will provide no congestion relief for the average driver.  Instead, they guarantee to make it worse.
See the WSOC report here and read the original piece at WidenI77 here.

So, what should Davidson residents expect from our Commissioners in face of all this new information?

During the last election cycle Davidson Commissioners Fuller, Graham, and Jenest along with former Commissioner Connie Wessner all endorsed the idea of HOT lanes in this joint editorial on the project just before election day last fall - "Davidson incumbents weigh in on I-77 toll issue" .

Here's the meat of their position back then:

  • HOT Lanes are a reasonable solution to address the "asphyxiating" congestion on I77. (Is it reasonable to support a solution with outrageous tolls the average citizen can not afford and results in doubling congestion in the general purpose lanes?)
  • Opponents of HOT Lanes do so only for political purposes and not out of concern for the regions long-term welfare.  (Apparently, according to these Commissioners opposing a bad idea simply because it is a bad idea must be political.  The irony of this position is that it was espoused in a political editorial just before an election.) 
  • "The Town of Davidson – by law – could not re-paint a single stripe on Interstate 77, even if we were armed with a unanimous board resolution, paint brushes and a can of yellow paint."  Meaning, Davidson's Board has no direct responsibility for I77, so taking an official position as a Board is meaningless. (Davidson's Board recently passed two unanimous resolutions about Duke Power coal ash and the Common Core education standards - issues where they possess zero official authority or responsibility.  Were those resolutions meaningless?  A lack of authority did not prevent the current Board from expressing an opinion on the State's proposed actions on these issues, and the Board should not continue to hide behind a supposed lack of authority on the HOT Lanes issue just because that issue is unpopular.) 

Davidson's new commissioners, Stacey Anderson and Beth Cashion, both expressed reservations about the HOT lanes plan during the last election cycle.  For them, more information was needed to make a fully informed decision.

Well, now we have it.

Or, more correctly we have a much better idea of how truly bad this project likely will be.  According to NCDOT immediately began walking back its own numbers when faced with a little scrutiny.

In light of all this Davidson's Board should finally take an official position on the HOT lanes project.  The Board should pass a resolution asking for a delay in signing a contract until reliable figures are provided that NCDOT is willing to stand behind.

The Davidson Board has one more chance to meet before the end of June and go on record regarding this most important decision for our region since the creation of Lake Norman itself.

The only question is will they take it?

Bonus Observation:  The town board is currently on summer hiatus as far as its 4th Tuesday work sessions are concerned.  In order for the Board to meet and actually pass a resolution a "Special Meeting" would have to be called with adequate notice since this is not on the previously announced schedule.  There is time to do it if the meeting is announced on Friday.  There is precedent for this type of meeting however.  The Board did call a special meeting on short notice when trying to push through four year terms in 2012.  We here at aShortChronicle had brought an issue to their attention regarding that effort and they called the meeting.  See articles here and here.

Odds of that happening here on something that is more uncomfortable?  Slim to none. 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Town of Davidson June Board Mtg from the Twitterverse

The Town of Davidson met Tuesday night for its monthy regular meeting.   Here's the play-by-play from aShortChronicle's Twitter feed.

6:10pm - #Davidson June mtg underway...Board recognizes CSD & Hough High girls soccer teams for their 1A & 4A state championships @townofdavidson

6:13pm - #Davidson Mayor Woods completes announcements including multiple small economic development efforts @TownofDavidson...good things.

6:17pm - #Davidson Mayor Woods previews effort by @TownofDavidson & other local mayors to push state on coal ash near Catawba "regardless of cost"

6:21pm - #Davidson West Side residents ask @TownofDavidson to no longer have community chats in local churches - seen as inappropriate

6:28pm - Citizen Survey - @TownofDavidson only below benchmarks regarding public transportation; no surprises #Davidson does very well overall

6:35pm - #Davidson @TownofDavidson Citizen Survey...40% work in town?!?! Staff sees as big positive....OR could be sign of skew in respondents

-- One has to wonder about the 40% number. Seems high. How is it calculated?  If you telecommute one day per week, do you count as working in town?  Also, could be a sign of a skew on the respondents.  Is it possible that people who work locally are more likely to respond to a survey like this?  It was also mentioned that the survey was weighted across age groups.  Younger respondents were weighted more because of lower response rate.  Seems likely that younger workers are more likely to telecommute, so weighting them more could skew this number.  The bigger question is if any skew exists, does it somehow impact the other numbers in the survey?

6:42pm - @TownofDavidson using survey to drive some decisions...recycling and leaf pickup mentioned for #Davidson budget

6:45pm - #Davidson residents speak up again - upset about the results; perceived lack of impact in West Side of @TownofDavidson

6:50pm - #Davidson Board unanimously passes resolution by @TownofDavidson encouraging #NCGA to keep Common Core education standards.

6:53pm - @TownofDavidson passing a resolution on Common Core seems misplaced. #Davidson has no authority one way or other on this.

6:56pm - #Davidson Board unanimously passes @TownofDavidson FY2015 budget.  No tax increase.  No discussion at this meeting.  All done previously.

7:00pm #Davidson Affordable Housing  discussing 25% reduction of payment in lieu to avoid @TownofDavidson mandatory program

-- If this reduction brings in enough money, it would likely be used to do some renovation on Lakeside Appartments.  However, it seems unlikely that will be the case.  Payment in lieu amounts are set when a master plan is approved.  They don't adjust over time based on the current market rates.  Seems unlikely that only a 25% reduction will entice developers to use capital now when they could wait indefinitely to pay.  Unless they are confident they could resell the freed up lots at market rate AND recoup their payment in lieu plus make a tidy profit, there is not much incentive.  (Note: Incorrectly used the acronym PILOT in the tweets which is Payment in Lieu of Taxes for non-profits that don't pay taxes.

7:06pm - #Davidson Aff Housing PILOT reduction...@TownofDavidson Comm Graham commits to not take advantage of program to avoid conflict of interest

-- By committing to this, Commissioner Graham did not have to recuse himself from the vote.

7:10pm - #Davidson Board unanimously approves @TownofDavidson offering reduction of PILOT for very low income affordable housing.

Meeting adjourned about 7:15pm.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Davidson Community Garden...looking good again this year!

After three straight posts on the town budget, here's something a little on the lighter side - one of those things that makes it great to live here in Davidson.

Here are some recent pics to pass along from local photographer, Michael Reynolds.  These are professional grade and do the garden much more justice than my periodic smartphone shots ever do.

Davidson Budget: The Downright Ugly

In this third installment of the analysis of Davidson's proposed 2015 budget, we're going deep into the weeds.

If you agree with former Mecklenburg County Commissioner Parks Helms and see small tax increases and spending on pet projects as "just a chicken sandwich and a cup of slaw,"  then you'll probably think this one is being a little picky. We here at aShortChronicle tend to look at these things a bit differently.  The devil is always in the details, and when you're spending other people's money it's easy to let the little things add up.

This one takes us into the realm of Davidson's town planning.

Davidson prides itself on its town planning, and our little town regularly wins awards of all types.  Below is a list of the planning related awards since just 2010:
  • 2010 - Tree City USA 
  • 2010 - Bike Friendly Community - Bronze
  • 2011 - Comprehensive Plan - North Carolina American Planning Association (NCAPA) Planning Award - Honorable Mention 
  • 2011 - Affordable Housing - NCAPA Planning Award 
  • 2011 - Circles at 30 - NCAPA Planning Award 
  • 2011 - 2014 - Fit Community - Bronze
  • 2011 - Walk Friendly Community - Bronze
  • 2013 - Great Main Street Award, North Carolina Chapter of the American Planning Association
  • 2014 - North Carolina Land Trust Government Conservation Partner of the Year Award, Conservation Trust for North Carolina

  • Note: This list does not even include the CDC grant the town received for Health Impact Assessments as mentioned in Part 1 of this series.  That grant was based largely on the town's planning principles.

    Whether or not you agree with the Town's planning ordinance it's hard to deny that among the circle of consultants and "big thinkers" who care about this stuff, Davidson does pretty well at racking up awards.  One would think the ordinance is pretty solid, right?  No need to further polish the apple when it already shines so brightly. Well, apparently not everyone would agree.  Two years ago as part of the 2012-2013 budget, Davidson's Board set aside $75,000 to rewrite the award winning ordinance.  That was extra money, not something carved out of the existing town planning budget.

    Where did that money go?

    It went to hire The Lawrence Group - the well connected architecture and design firm with a local office here in town.

    Back in the late '90s, Assistant Town Manager Dawn Blobaum was a Co-Founder of  The Lawrence Group's NC operation before jumping over to Davidson Town Hall.  Over the subsequent years, The Lawrence Group has done a good bit of work for the Town.  They pulled together the town’s Transit Area Study and Circles at 30 Small Area Plan featured on the firm’s national website.   They also did the design work for $250,000 renovation of the old pump house into the new Parks and Rec offices and the bridge design for the now long stalled Roosevelt Wilson Park new bridge.

    Along with all of the private sector work The Lawrence Group has done in town, it's fair to say they know the planning ordinance well, and they certainly know how to get things through Davidson Town Hall.  It's really not surprising that if any firm was going to be hired to further polish the apple, it would be their team.  In fact, it would really be surprising if any other firm was allowed to do it.

    As of this writing the overall project to update the planning ordinance still is not done.  That's after an $85,000 contract for The Lawrence Group, an untold number of Town Staff hours, and waiting nearly two years after it was budgeted!

    One might think all of that is what makes this "the Downright Ugly" part of this series.  Sadly, it is not.

    This year's FY2015 budget has a small item in there for our Town Attorney also related to this rewrite. 

    $25,000 for our town attorney to review the updated ordinance when it's eventually done.

    That's over and above the $50,000 budgeted annually for Mr Kline's part-time services to the town.

    As a side note, we asked for Mr Kline's previous contract to see what was included in that $50,000 per year he receives.  There apparently isn't one.  Instead, he's paid monthly for the "average hours" worked. 

    So, here you have the Town hiring local experts for a sizable sum of money, and then hiring our own town attorney to review their work and effectively giving him a 50% raise this year over the amount paid on a nonexistent annual contract.  All this happens while the rest of town staff - including our police officers - is budgeted to receive an average raise of just 2%.  Some will receive less.

    Now, that's downright ugly!