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Archive for June, 2008

One month. Three passionate zoning battles.

We started June analyzing a dispute over a racetrack in Patrick County and a fight over a scrap metal operation in northern Surry County. Now we’re ending the month with another business vs. the neighbors dispute, this one in Mount Airy.

In the pre-zoning era, you likely wouldn’t have three such disputes all at once. But now Surry County and Mount Airy have land use plans (you can see the county’s here, while the city’s isn’t up online) with zoning ordinances to carry them out, and Dobson is developing one. So there’s more restrictions on landowners, and neighbors unhappy about an operation next door have more precedent to call for (or at times demand) such restrictions. Now that budget season is over, the next city council and county commissioner meetings will likely spend much if not most of the time on these cases. Expect lots of debate weighing the rights of a property owner versus the will of a neighborhood, with the benefit of the community falling somewhere along that spectrum.

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The process of settling on a spending plan for Mount Airy has produced an ample supply of analogies and metaphors both acute (Todd Harris comparing the city’s ride of industrial users to pay water expansion debt to Big Brown coming up short in the last sprit) and bizarre (see the post below).

But the best one yet arrived Thursday evening from Dean Brown, who cast a pivotal swing vote in favor of the budget. Brown recounted a contentious budget from the late 19th century, when Mount Airy commissioners were debating which of two mules to buy to haul the trash cart. The bigger mule cost $75 more and was a mean thing that snapped at everybody. But commissioners bit the bullet and purchased that animal because it could haul considerably more trash and would help in the long run.

“I guess today we bought the mean mule,” Brown said right after the budget vote.

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What does the Surry-County/Mount Airy airport have that commercial airports in Asheville and Wilmington do not? Apparently an impact of more than 3,000 jobs, at least according to the DOT. The local airport’s much debated expansion picked up steam at the state level after an economic impact study done by the DOT ranked it fourth in the state in number of jobs impacted directly and indirectly by its presence. The estimated $387 million economic impact of the airport also ranked fourth (behind Charlotte-Douglas, RDU and PTI)

The full study is posted here. Scroll down to appendix B for the charts with all the data.

The DOT study was made as part of a request for federal aviation funding, so the agency has some incentive to pump up the overall numbers. But the discrepancy between the Surry County airport and others of its size is startling.

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No, not THAT kind of weed. Just the kind that sprouts up in unkept yards.

Sen. Don East got a little more popular in the legislature as of late. It appears that Mount Airy’s request to streamline the process of fining property owners with overgrown yards has a handful of other municipalities jumping on board.

We reported on the front of the March 24th edition about how most city officials wanted to reduce the amount of warnings given property owners before fining them. So East introduced this bill adding Mount Airy to a list of municipalities that only have to give warnings once a year. It sailed through the Senate and gets taken up by the House today. Only now the bill has been amended to this. A few other Senators apparently thought their municipalities would like to follow Mount Airy’s lead.

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During a Mount Airy City Council budget meeting where commissioner Tom Bagnal quoted Bette Davis (“Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night”) and Commissioner Dean Brown quoted Larry the Cable Guy (“Let’s get r done”), by far the most entertaining quote to sum up the situation came via Commissioner Deborah Cochran. She opened the meeting with an anecdote about this recent encounter she had with an employee at McDonald’s.

“He saw me and said ‘heavy is the head that wears the crown.’ I asked if that was Shakespeare. ‘No,’ he said. ‘that’s Metallica.”

 

My google searching couldn’t find that particular quote from the heavy metal band. Cochran may have been getting mixed up with the Limp Bizkit song Re-arranged. But for the purposes of having a laugh at this dramatic budget season, here’s a few other quotes from Metallica hit songs that could apply to the process.

(on the acrimonious debates on whether to raise water rates) “This is cloud that swallows trust. This is the black that uncolors us.”

(on the relentless search for ways to reduce those rates) “They’re off to find the hero of the day. But what if they should fall by someone’s wicked way?”

(or on the risk of depleting savings or putting off projects to fix crumbling infrastructure) “Then it comes to be that the soothing light at the end of your tunnel. Was just a freight train coming your way.”

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Navigating budgets and separating the “fat” from the “bone” is tough without the expertise of actually running a department. But there’s one optional expense everyone can weigh in on without knowing the inner workings of utility systems, patrol divisions, building permits, etc.

That would be pay raises, this year specifically, cost of living pay raises. They’re included for all employees in local government budgets … for now. The across the board raises look like they’ll stay in Dobson and Pilot Mountain’s budgets, while they’re targeted for elimination in Mount Airy and the county’s budgets.

Agreeing on even what constitutes a “cost of living” increase is hard enough (it’s 3 percent for Dobson and the county, 4 percent for Mount Airy and Pilot Mountain). Whether or not to fund them is an argument of both fairness — should government employees be punished for private industry layoffs, or do they owe the unemployed to have their paychecks slashed in real dollars? It’s also an argument of fiscal prudence — do governments save money by holding off on raises or will that just cause turnover that costs more in the long run through having to train new employees?

County officials meet tonight and Mount Airy officials meet tomorrow to crunch budgets. Expect this topic to get plenty of discussion.

UPDATE SINCE THIS WAS POSTED: COLA raises did get plenty of focus during budget talks, and both county and Mount Airy commissioners were in pretty much unanimous agreement to slash them from the budgets. Nothing’s final yet, but it’s highly unlikely they’ll be put back in.

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Want to see how a number of competing interests can all agree on how to share $2 million? June 30th could provide perfect example on how to do it … or not to do it.

That’s the next time folks from The Golden LEAF Foundation are in town to facilitate a process of deciding by consensus what the priority uses are for the $2 million the foundation is reserving for the county through its Community Assistance Initiative (an overview of that program is attached as a word document).

The gloves are off, in that most any type of use for this money qualifies as long as A. it improves the economy, and B. it has countywide consensus.

Easier said than done, and already some alliances are forming to ensure no one gets excluded from the money entirely. But it’s a public process, so everyone gets a say on what the greatest needs are and what projects best meet those needs. Here’s a list of what other counties have gotten from this initiative as a starting point.

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