The next city council meeting will be on June 1 at 6:45pm. This meeting will once again be virtual, so if you are interested in participating in the public comment portion of the meeting, be sure to submit your comments to the city clerk so they can be read aloud at the meeting.

We have a very full agenda, but here are a few of the highlights:

-We will be receiving an update on the county’s response to COVID-19 from Gaston County Health and Human Services Director Chris Dobbins.

-We will also be conducting the public hearing on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

-There will be an update and a proposed change to the path of the Rail Trail due to some complications with that project.

-We will also be considering the closure of Jade Circle and Centerview Street in North Belmont to facilitate the development of the River West Business Park.-There will also be an update on the Belmont Trolley project, where we will consider a proposed Memorandum of Understanding.

-NCDOT is currently in the midst of a significant cash crunch and has stopped work on many projects and is also planning to significantly scale back maintenance of state roads. City Council will be considering a resolution asking NCDOT and the General Assembly to continue funding for the Powell Bill program (which funds maintenance of city-maintained streets) and to continue necessary maintenance of state roads (including things like patching pot holes and mowing grass along state roads).

You can find a copy of the meeting agenda and a link to the livestream here: https://cityofbelmont.civicweb.net/Portal/MeetingInformation.aspx?Id=332

City Council will be holding a special meeting on Monday at 4:30 to consider a Small Business Emergency Loan Program. The meeting will be virtual (i.e. a conference call), and I will post call-in information for anyone who wants to listen once that is available.

This emergency loan program is the result of an idea that I pitched to our city manager as a way to address the cash flow issues that many of our small businesses are now facing as a result of the shutdown orders that have forced many of them to severely curtail or, in many cases, completely reinvent their businesses. After a lot of collaboration with Adrian and his team, I think we have come up with a very workable solution.

The Montcross Area Chamber of Commerce recently did a survey of local businesses following the initial round of shut-down orders. Of those that responded, 80% indicated that they were concerned with cash flow issues, and 63% said that they needed resources for recovery funding for business operations and revenue disruption. This program is designed to address these short-term cash flow needs (allowing them to pay rent, utilities, payroll, etc.) and allow these businesses to remain open and solvent until they are able to tap more long-term state and federal assistance that is slowly working its way through the system but is still likely weeks away.

This is the general outline of the program:

-Funding will be available for up to 40 loans of $10,000 each for small businesses in Belmont-The loans will be unsecured with a term of 36-months and an interest rate of 7%

-No payments will be required within the first 12 months of the loan-

A three-person staff committee will review and approve loan applications with oversight by the city manager and city council

-Funding for this program will come from the $400,000 budgeted surplus that was scheduled to go into the city savings account at the end of the fiscal year. So, there will be no impact to other areas of the budget.

You can find a more complete outline of the program here: https://cityofbelmont.civicweb.net/document/20709/AAC650ABBB874BC69D523F1A3065EBC5-.pdf?handle=3936F9BDE52049B8BDE96CF729AF770A

The idea is that these loans will address the immediate cash needs of our small businesses now and, then when they have been able to tap into SBA assistance, etc. later, they can roll these loans over into that assistance.

I am, of course, interested to hear your feedback on this (especially from our small business owners). Belmont has spent many years building up what I think is a very vibrant small businesses environment that is an integral part of our community. So, I want to make sure that we are doing what we can to help them weather a storm that no one could have predicted or planned for.

Chronicle Mill Belmont NC

There were two big projects before the Planning & Zoning board last night. Here are some of my thoughts:

Adding a Story to Chronicle Mill

As a bona fide history nerd, I certainly appreciate the value and importance of buildings such as Chronicle Mill. Especially given the mill’s importance to the history of Belmont in particular, we should be looking for creative ways to preserve those parts of our history.

The project proposal includes adding an additional story (for a total of 5 stories) and 25 apartments (for 240 total) on the top of the mill. Right now, the ordinance sets the maximum building height at 3 stories. I have the same concerns as other people at the meeting around this excess building height, as this development takes advantage of some vagueries in the land development code about how the height of a building should be measured. In my opinion, we need to update the ordinance to clearly spell out how building heights are measured (and from where they are measured). I don’t think there’s any real good policy reason to effectively grant a “bonus” level for developments that happen to be built on hilly lots. I think that could have a lot of unintended consequences and result in projects with higher densities than were initially planned for.

Second and notably, there aren’t enough parking spaces in the current site plan to meet the parking requirements spelled out in the land use ordinance. The Chronicle Mill development would have 240 apartments, 10 town homes, and 10,000 sqft of retail. We have to think about the impact this is going to have on the local neighborhood, especially with regard to traffic and parking. This issue was basically punted to city council, but the traffic mitigation piece is really up in the air, and I don’t see how it makes sense to move forward on something like this without (at the very least) having that figured out.

North Belmont Warehouse Project

There was also a project presented that would build 2-4 warehouses on an industrial site off Woodlawn Street. Per the Gazette, the site would potentially create 250-350 jobs once the site was built out and leased. Our Pedestrian Master Plan does call for 8-foot sidewalks in that area (along Woodlawn and Acme Streets) both in recognition of some significant pedestrian activity that already occurs there but also in anticipation of additional student housing being installed in that area at some point in the future.

So, I was really disappointed to see the sidewalk and pedestrian improvement requirements basically tossed right out the window. In the same vein as the building height issue noted above, I don’t understand why we spend all of this time planning only to cast it aside as soon as a developer threatens to walk. Does anyone really think that they’re going to walk from a $35 Million project over a couple of sidewalks? I think there were a lot of valid points raised about pedestrian safety and the potential for more development in that area that the city will need to address sooner or later. And the developer didn’t really provide any reason for not doing the improvements beyond basically just not wanting to do them. I think economic development is important for the city, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hold the development to our plan.

Belmont Tax Graph

Property Taxes in Belmont Among the Highest in Gaston County

Outside making zoning and development decisions, setting the property tax rate in Belmont is one of the city council’s most important jobs. And, if you’re like me, you just got your tax bill in the mail and may be experiencing a little sticker shock based on your new valuation that Gaston County completed this year.

How Your Tax is Calculated

If you are not familiar with how the actual tax you pay is calculated, here’s how you get to that number:

  1. Take the value of your property (as determined by the county appraisal) and divide by 100
  2. Multiply that number by the tax rate

Belmont’s tax rate is currently $0.515 per $100 of value. So, if your house was worth $100,000 than your tax is ($100,000/100) x $0.515 = $515.00

You actually pay both your county and city property taxes at the same time. The county’s current rate is $0.84 (which was just lowered from $0.87), but it’s calculated the same way, and you just add it to the city tax to get your total bill.

So, in our example above, the county portion is ($100,000/100) x $0.84 = $840.00. So our hypothetical Belmont homeowner has a total tax bill of $515 (City of Belmont) + $840 (County of Gaston) = $1355.00

There are actually two ways that your taxes can go up. The city can raise the actual tax rate (which they did last year, increasing it from $0.475 to $0.515), or the assessed value of your property can go up (which is likely what happened to most people this year). The revenue-neutral rate, which is the tax rate that Belmont would need to assess this year (after the re-evaluation) to collect the same amount of revenue as last year (before the re-evaluation) is $0.465. So, what has happened is that the tax rate went up last year, and then this year assessed property values went up (because of the county’s re-evaluation) even as the tax rate stayed the same.

How Does Belmont Compare to Other Towns/Cities?

The average tax bill paid by Belmont homeowners is actually the highest in Gaston County, but you wouldn’t necessarily see that if you just look at the city’s tax rate. I pulled together some data on the other municipalities in Gaston County to give you an idea of where Belmont stands relative to the rest of the county. If you just look at tax rates, you actually miss a big part of the picture. Here’s a simple ranking of where Belmont stands just based on tax rates (note that this excludes the county tax rate, which is the same across the entire county):

RankMunicipalityTax Rate
1Stanley0.54
2Gastonia0.52
3Belmont0.515
4Mount Holly0.485
5Cramerton0.475
6Cherryville0.46
7Bessemer City0.45
8Kings Mountain0.43
9Lowell0.43
10High Shoals0.41
11Dallas0.40
12Ranlo0.40
13McAdenville0.33

Looked at from a pure tax rate perspective, Belmont comes in at number three. However, when we adjust for the median home value in each of these municipalities and apply that to the tax rate, Belmont jumps to number one:

RankMunicipalityTax RateMedian Home ValueAvg City Tax BillAvg Total Tax Bill
1Belmont0.515$169,630$874$2298
2Mount Holly0.485$163,710$794$2169
3Cramerton0.475$153,540$729$2019
4Stanley0.54$115,400$623$1593
5McAdenville0.33$187,135$618$2189
6Gastonia0.52$116,100$604$1579
7Ranlo0.40$124,940$500$1549
8Lowell0.43$108,870$468$1383
9Cherryville0.46$86,120$396$1120
10Dallas0.40$97,110$388$1204
11Bessemer City0.45$72,870$328$940
12Kings Mountain0.43$71,490$307$908
13High Shoals0.41$53,880$221$674

It’s also worth noting that because the median home value in Belmont is higher than in most other municipalities (except for McAdenville), the average county tax bill for Belmont homeowners is among the highest in the county (about $1424) – but that’s a topic for another day.

What Tax is the Right Tax?

If you look at historical tax rates in Belmont, the $0.475 rate was set all the way back in 2008, and obviously a lot happened between 2008 and 2018 (which is when the new rate was effective). Especially after a re-evaluation where property values change significantly, I think that the council should be willing to review the appropriateness of the tax rate to ensure that we are collecting what we actually need. In my mind, collecting too much tax money is just as bad as not collecting enough. We don’t want to end up with a situation where we don’t have enough funds to maintain facilities, fund capital improvements, etc. but we also don’t want to get into a situation where we’re looking for things to spend money on.

Given our standing relative to the rest of the county, I think it’s worth taking a look at the tax rate next year to see if it’s still appropriate (especially since there is a rather large budgeted surplus this year – though that is being directed to a rainy day fund). But what do you think? Do you feel like your taxes are too high? Are there some things that you’d like to see get more funding? Let me know in the comments!

Belmont Kiosks

Sitting in Tuesday night’s City Council meeting, two things stuck out to me:

Municipal Service Districts

First, the conversation about the Main Street program in general and Municipal Service Districts (MSD) in particular was pretty interesting (for anyone so inclined, the relevant part of the meeting starts at 49:00). What was fascinating to me was that the most vocal supporters of the kiosks were also the most strident opponents of MSDs – which seems like a pretty classic example of trying to have your cake and eat it too.

For a pretty good rundown of what a MSD is, check out this post from the UNC School of Government, but basically it’s a special tax district (the boundaries of which are set by city council) where the taxes raised in that district are dedicated towards some predetermined goal (urban renewal and downtown revitalization are the most common goals). A lot of municipalities use MSDs to pay for things like tourist information kiosks, downtown beautification/enhancement projects, downtown ambassadors, and other initiatives that benefit downtown businesses (here’s an example from Wilmington). So, rather than paying for things like fancy kiosks with the property taxes that everyone in Belmont pays, these projects would be funded by the taxes collected from the businesses that most directly benefit from them. The other benefit is that it provides a more predictable revenue stream for downtown development and, there’s pretty generous leeway on how the advisory board overseeing the district can spend the money. Of course, the trade-off is that the MSD typically assesses a special tax from the property owners in the defined district, so property owners in the MSD would see higher tax bills. On the other hand, you’d probably see a lot of the public opposition to things like the kiosks disappear if the money for them wasn’t coming out of general property tax revenues.

So, really it’s a judgement call. Although, I will admit to being baffled by those who claim that having the kiosks makes us a “modern” city but then reject out of hand the most common way of paying for these “modern” enhancements. It seems like the hostility of most of the council to his idea is preventing them from even asking the business community if this is something they would be interested in. I certainly don’t think it would hurt to ask the question.

Social Media

The second item that I found more than a little concerning is that there was a conversation among several of the council members about keeping things “in the room” or “in the meeting”. There is apparently some consternation about discussing the council’s policy decisions on Facebook and other social media. Now, if some members of the council prefer to hole themselves up in a bunker and never engage with their constituents, that is, of course, their prerogative. I enjoy engaging with the people of Belmont, both online and offline. I think that social media is particularly valuable, because it’s quick, it’s easy, and everyone has a Facebook account. And by interacting with you on Facebook, I think that I learn just as much from you, as you (hopefully) learn from me. I welcome the conversation, the feedback (both positive and negative), and the engagement. Your opinion matters, even if it makes some council members uncomfortable.

child slide crop

One of the bigger projects I have been involved with over the last few months is the new Parks and Recreation Master Plan (draft final version as of this writing). The last Belmont Parks master plan was updated in 2003 (!) and obviously quite a bit has changed since then. The consultant we hired conducted a lot of community meetings, surveys, staff interviews, etc. to get an idea of what we have, where we want to go, and how we can get there.

One of the most valuable aspects of the new master plan is where it benchmarks Belmont parks against a set of standards for peer cities and then projects our anticipated parks/recreation needs based on current growth projections (while also accounting for current deficiencies). So, for example, right now the greatest need for new park facilities is in North Belmont and South Point and, the plan calls for the addition of two Neighborhood Parks by 2029. Now that we know what we as a community need (as far as parks go), we can start planning around those needs, and if an opportunity for some new parkland presents itself we can take advantage of that. It sets expectations for residents as far as what the city will look like in 10 years while also setting some benchmarks to evaluate our city leaders against. So, in 10 years, if we don’t find a way to get those two parks – we can hold our city council members accountable.

I think this approach to governing is something that would benefit other areas of the city, not just Parks. Believe it or not, there is actually a Comprehensive Land Use Plan for Belmont that was just updated in 2018 and contains a plan for land use and growth for the city for the next 20 years. There are actually a lot of good ideas in the Land Use Plan. Unfortunately, those ideas aren’t worth very much if they aren’t effectively implemented. This, I believe, is part of where we’ve started to stray. Increasingly, we are reinterpreting the Land Use Plan to fit development projects when we should be reshaping these projects (and/or saying “No Thanks”) to fit the Land Use Plan.

What we need on city council are more people willing to stick up for what we, as a community, have collectively decided we want the city to look like. We can’t allow ourselves to be distracted by showy PowerPoint presentations and pie-in-the-sky economic projections from people who don’t even live here. We have to be willing to fight for what makes Belmont special.

From the Executive Summary of the City’s Operational Efficiency Assessment:

Ultimately the strategy and direction for the City are set at the top by the Council and key members of leadership through the articulation of a set of strategic parameters such as the mission, vision, values, and goals… The City of Belmont currently does not have any of this information established, nor is it routinely tracking much in the way of performance metrics.

2019 Operational Efficiency Assessment – Summary of Findings

When confronting a difficult decision (such as a controversial re-zoning petition, for example), it’s a good idea to ask what our end-goal is. As the above assessment indicates, we don’t currently know what that is. And we don’t have any way of measuring success. What are our goals as a city? Do we want more growth or less growth? Why? What does “growth” even mean? Does it mean population growth or economic growth or is there some other definition that we should consider? Without knowing the answers to basic questions like these, we will just wander from decision to decision without any clear sense of direction or purpose. As the Assessment notes, how do you know if hiring three new police officers/firemen/etc is appropriate if you don’t know why you’re hiring them?

This also means that we need to be able to track our performance against these clearly-defined goals. And that means that we need to do a better job of collecting even very basic data.  I have run into this myself just through my service on the Parks and Recreation Advisory Board. A few years ago, we were evaluating changes to the fee schedule for things like picnic shelter rentals, etc. Yet, we apparently don’t collect any data on how much any of those facilities are used and only very limited data on how much we are raising from these rentals. How can we make a decision about whether we need to raise or lower fees if we don’t even know how often the shelters are being used? That’s just a simple example, but it also applies to some of the larger problems the city is facing. How much have police and fire calls increased as the city has grown? How has attendance at our festivals changed as the city has grown? How many people can we expect to use the shiny new kiosks that we just spent $72,000 on? How many people are actually using them?

If we don’t know how to define and measure success, what are we even doing?