Archive for the ‘Local government’ Category

That’s not an original, or even a newly coined, metaphor to describe the prolonged debate over a Fibrowatt plant in Surry County turning poultry litter into electricity. Throughout the two-year recruitment process, public officials and environmental groups batted back and forth on whether the proposed $150 million plant would do more economic good than environmental harm. Those following it all heard this metaphor more than once from a variety of sources.

But a grassroots group that just bubbled up opposing the plant has a new metaphor, and a new argument, to throw into the sphere of public debate. It involves Surry County, with its attractive natural resources and tourist destinations, as the prettiest girl at the ball and the power plant as a chain smoking deadbeat trying to take her home. Simply put, new opponents think saying yes to the plant means saying no to possible growth in the tourism and retirement sectors, sacrificing a quick boost to the tax base for a more sustainable plan to lure new businesses through quality of life. And that’s only one component of the multi-faceted status of the plant, a crossroads detailed in the March 1 edition of The Messenger.

Nine months after Fibrowatt’s announcement to locate in Surry, the company is still looking for a power purchase agreement with Duke Energy, while the county is still firming up a multi-million dollar incentives package. There’s still rezoning needed on the proposed site and an air quality permit from the state before any construction can begin. With hundreds of residents just now adding their voices to the debate, and local government officials reiterating their strong support, expect a lot more unsavory metaphors in the next few months.

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old-houseIn Mount Airy, a surprising number would answer yes, given the volume and magnitude of the arguments during the past two years on whether to restore the 1920s-era home or bulldoze it to clear parking space for Reeves Community Center (seen in the background of this photo). The final public chapter, detailed in the Feb. 20 Messenger, had all the drama one would expect given the disproportionate amount of attention this issue has garnered at  city council meetings. Those opposed to selling the home for renovation broke out all the rhetorical stops, calling the action “one of the stupidist things government has ever done,” “A big mistake” and an “elimination of there every being expansion at Reeves for our children and our senior citizens.”

The vitrol was so strong that Brenda Cooke, who two weeks earlier was estatic about buying the house for $37,500 and spending as much as $150,000 to renovate it, got up moments before the vote and declared that she didn’t feel welcome on the street and had second thoughts about moving in. The council voted 3-2 to accept her offer anyway, and opponants followed that up by welcoming her to the street and offering to help her move. And thus closes (for now, just wait for the wrath if that home isn’t restored as promised) a prolonged saga of recreation vs preservation that took up more council meeting time these past two years than any other subject. May it stay closed and may Cooke find a real welcome and sense of community in her new home.

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We’re entering round two of Waste Industries’ attempt to lease the county’s landfill operations. After being soundly rejected by commissioners in 2003, the company is taking their case directly to the public this time via a petition and outreach campaign focused on economic development, as outlined in the Feb. 8 edition of The Messenger.

Taking the county’s waste collection and disposal services private isn’t a new concept. Waste Industries has a sizable presence across the southeast as does its competitor Waste Management. But there’s an element of local control lost when the county no longer can hire/fire its own employees, set rates or decide the scope of services. Is that control worth the millions county government would receive by leasing the landfill? How many residents say yes will likely determine whether a formal offer is made to a now firmly resistant board of commissioners.

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As President Obama’s stimulus package winds its way through Congress, Surry County government has put together its own plan of ready-to-go projects seeking some stimulus funding, as described in the Feb. 1 Messenger. The plan is now complete and being sent out to state and federal representatives. A quick summery of the contents, with price tags.

Surry Community College: North Carolina Center for Viticulture and Enology, $5 million; physical education building addition, $600,000; student service building addition, $1 million.

Surry County Schools: New central district elementary school, $12 million; east district middle school, $15 million, east district elementary school renovation, $2.5 million; purchase of warehouse office facility for use as a technology and training center, $500,000.

Elkin City Schools: Phase II of Elkin High School renovations, $7.3 million; Phase III of Elkin High School renovations, $3.8 million; up-fitting technology infrastructure, $200,000; replace energy management systems, $789,000; renovation/addition to Elkin High gym, $10 million.

Mount Airy City Schools: Mount Airy High renovations, $2.5 million; Fascia replacement at Mount Airy High gym, $100,000;cCafeteria Renovations, $525,000; HVAC controls, $225,000; roof replacement at Tharrington Primary School, $200,000.

City of Mount Airy: Interstate 77 NC/VA Welcome Centers sewer extension, $6 million; Piedmont Triad West Industrial Park water and sewer extensions, $1 million; Interstate district water and sewer extension $9.6 million; new aerial fire truck, $800,000; North Main fire station relocation, $1.2 million.

Town of Dobson: Dobson/Mount Airy water systems interconnection, $1.4 million; water/wastewater equipment and additional employees, $400,000; Construction of public works facility, $1.5 million; sidewalk repairs and equipment, $700,000; public safety capital equipment, $250,000.

Town of Elkin: Fire hydrant upgrades, $74,000; raw water main upgrade, $450,000; Memorial Park pump station, $285,000; Corporate Park gravity sewer, $350,000; pump station, force main and plant decommissioning for Yadkin Valley Sewer Authority, $538,000.

Town of Pilot Mountain: Water connection with city of King, $3.4 million; water connection to city of Mount Airy, $2.5 million; downtown utilities relocation, $1.3 million; sewer main replacement $684,000.

Surry County Government: Greater interstates water and sewer district, $10.7 million; water supply for central district elementary school, $1.7 million; Fibrowatt water and sewer line extension, $1.8 million; public safety capital equipment, $1 million; local non-profit capital grant initiatives, $2 million.

Some of these projects are big thinking — connecting all our excess water so it can be sold to Winston-Salem and Greensboro, who need it — while others seem like more mundane capital purchases and upgrades that have been taking place for decades. As of now, there’s some funding in the stimulus bill for infrastructure and school construction. But all that could change. And if the county’s Congressional representative has her way, the plan will be far less funding for this kind of stuff and far more in the way of tax cuts.

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Securing council approval proved difficult, and reaching consensus impossible, the last time Mount Airy put together a budget. The hard part was that cuts had to come from somewhere lest taxes go up, and there was plenty of last minute wrangling to decide what got the axe.

So this year the council is getting a bit of a head start on setting priorities. As outlined in the Jan. 28 Messenger, they’ve gone ahead and ranked on a scale of 1-10 the necessity of every service the city provides. Average the scores out and you have rankings for more than 300 functions of city government that will serve as a starting point for discussions during this week’s council retreat on what can be cut in the new budget. While the items scoring perfect 10s or those with the lowest marks immediately catch the eye, it’s the middle range where some of the more interesting questions arise. Services that averaged between 6.0 and 8.0 are the kinds some would regard as luxuries while others defend as absolute essentials. Consider the following list, all of which scored low enough to at least merit some debate this week on their importance.

—maintaining sidewalks
—leaf collections in the fall
—Christmas tree collections in the winter
—cleaning the streets with a sweeper and flusher
—maintaining landscape beds such as the war memorial
—tuition reimbursements for city employees continuing their education
—public safety education programs for residents
—security surveys of business and residential properties
—recreation programs geared to teens or senior citizens

That’s just a sampler. Taken together the rankings could spark a lively debate on the proper role of local government.

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brookshire1After debating in closed session for more than an hour, the Mount Airy City Council reached unanimous agreement Thursday night not to extend City Manager Don Brookshire’s contract when it expires in April. Though the 11-page document has a number of provisions, it’s the page on severance that has at least a majority of the council concerned, the fear being that the city would be unable to pay that much should it need to send Brookshire packing. But what’s left murky is whether or not the manager’s 8th year in Mount Airy will be his last, as a number of city officials have said they want to retain him in the current post. In the next two months the council will have to decide whether to negotiate a new contract from the current document or trust that Brookshire will work as an at-will employee. There’s certainly plenty of negotiating points, the question might be who has leverage. Are there interim managers waiting in the wings for the city to snap up, or can Brookshire land another managerial job opening with better employment security?

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Regardless of statewide voting that saw Democrat Kay Hagan win comfortably and Barack Obama win very marginally, Surry County still gave a resounding nod to the GOP. 

Take a look at the breakdown of votes by county and it’s clear that the northwest Piedmont was very much McCain country. Here in Surry, every Republican running for state or federal office did better here when compared to the district or state as a whole.

Democrats have gained pockets of support in the municipalities — which can be seen in the breakdowns of straight ticket voting or the Dole/Hagan race — and the number voting Democrat in the presidential race is up slightly from 2004. But there’s no spinning the fact that Republicans are still strong across the board, even though they aren’t in the majority in terms of voter registration. They even managed to elect one of their own, Sarah Stevens, to a House seat held by a three-term incumbent in Jim Harrell whose district leans Democratic.

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In a race without campaign websites, series of campaign events or even catchy slogans, the Paul Johnson v Eddie Brown battle for county commissioner has been defined in large part by a war of words in print. Here’s a quick synopsis of our letters to the editor referencing this race (along with links to each). If I left one out, please let me know and I’ll edit it into the post.

First we have a response here to negative radio ads Johnson has run, defending Brown’s record in regard to land dealings. That drew a rebuttal saying the accusations are backed up by facts. Johnson was attacked himself in a letter here criticizing his management of county employees and of his own finances.

Both candidates got ringing endorsements as well speaking of their past accomplishments, Brown’s here and Johnson’s here. Craig Hunter, chairman of the county commissioners, weighed in with a lengthy account of Johnson’s record on the board that endorses his candidacy.

Still several days to go before the election. I’m sure more letters will arrive on this heated race. Read our preview here.

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Jon Cawley doesn’t fancy himself a businessman, and his background doesn’t include lengthy experience in financial matters.

But the pastor and Mount Airy commissioner does have a lengthy and dedicated history helping sports and recreation programs. So he reacted to the news of the most recent loss of manufacturing jobs to Virginia thinking like a coach. Here’s his comments from last week’s city council meeting:

“Some of the reasons jobs have gone other places are not any one person’s fault. It’s a system I don’t like. A system where our neighbor has an advantage … “The sportsman in me asks ‘what does it take to win?’ We have to turn that negative 30 into a positive 30. We’ve got to attack that problem. We have to take the attitude of refuse to lose when it comes to putting people to work.”

Mount Airy football coach Kelly Holder would be proud.

It’s this competitive spirit that’s the backdrop of a forum later this month on the incentives issue that will feature those vying for elected office. Organizers say the focus is on how to win back jobs from Virginia by offering more incentives. But what are the rules in this game? When does cash for companies go against free market capitalism? If manufacturing industries get money up front, what about the insurance agency wanting to expand and hire 5 new people? Or the hotel thinking about arriving and wanting to hire 20? What about the industry thinking of leaving? Do they get incentives just to keep jobs here?

The Messenger has been invited to submit questions for the forum. Send us your suggestions.

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It’s the equation those puzzling over a controversial rezoning request have to sort through as they decide whether Mount Airy’s vision plan is out-of-date and thus not appropriate for use in evaluating whether 401 S. Renfro St. be approved for business use.

The vision plan, a guiding document that comprehensively gathers data on the city, says that corridor is fine for mixed use. Those opposed to the rezoning, however, point out that most of its information dates back to the late 1990s. Does that make it irrelavent? Has there been significant changes in the city in the past decade that change the scope of Mount Airy’s outlook on planning and growth?

I was still a high schooler in Asheville in the late 1990s, but can recognize there’s been numerous changes to the city itself. Not sure if they’re to the extent that planning and policy decisions should be guided by a different sort of principles. But that’s why the vision plan is due for an update. What comes out of the updating process (which will take place even if the rezoning request is settled Thursday) does impact everyone who lives in the area, whether or not you have a stake in the current controversy.

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