tax collection

Another big topic we discussed at our annual retreat is our budget strategy for the upcoming fiscal year. Revenue for the current fiscal year continues to be strong. As of the end of January, ad valorem property tax receipts are just over 100% of budget. Sales tax receipts through the end of December (half the fiscal year, which does not include the full impact of Christmas) are at 56.5% of budget. On the expense side, most line items are on track with our budget.

As a result of this, we are looking at a pretty healthy surplus when we close out the fiscal year at the end of June. Part of our strategy for the current fiscal year was to take a fairly conservative approach to the budget, and if the economy bounced back faster than anticipated, we would use some of the resulting surplus on outstanding capital projects.

So, staff presented four options for prioritization for the current year. Those were the Splash Pad, Skate Park, Dog Park, and the next phase of improvements to Rocky Branch Park. After some discussion, we decided to prioritize the Skate Park and the Rocky Branch Park improvements, which together will consume roughly $220k of this year’s surplus.

Looking ahead to next year, capital projects will likely continue to be a focus. Given how strong our revenues have been and continue to be, I suggested that we, as a Council, take a look at our property taxes to determine if we need to make any adjustments to the tax rate. The City has seen very positive growth in both our tax base and our sales tax collections over the last few years, so I think this may create an opportunity for us to implement a small cut to the tax rate while still accomplishing the goals that we have for the City. Prudence would suggest that whatever we do on that front should be measured, and the rest of the Council agreed to take a look at this at an upcoming workshop. So, we will take a look at this over the next few weeks as we get into building the budget for next year.

goal

We had a very productive retreat this past weekend, reviewing our progress over the past year and planning for the future. We covered a lot of ground, so I’ll just hit the highlights in this post. Over the next week or so, I’ll go more in-depth with individual posts on some of the bigger topics.

Successes for 2020 include:

-Progress on several long-standing capital projects, including the Rec Center, new city bus, Skateboard Park, CityWorks, Sidewalks, and a new irrigation system for the planters downtown

-Updates to the Land Development Code: increasing side setbacks, requiring apartment development by conditional rezoning only, the Tree Protection Ordinance, and enhanced community engagement (new/bigger rezoning signs, additional requirements for community meetings, etc.)

-A new website and enhanced land development project pages

-Livestreaming of council meetings and agenda packets made available to the public

-COVID Response: Small business emergency loans, Al Fresco Dining, Keep the Lights On Campaign, etc.

Looking ahead, we also talked about the new Solid Waste Services contract (which expires this year), Leaf Collection, new zoning for the Wilkinson Blvd corridor in anticipation of the light rail (as well as general growth concerns), and the budget for next year.

I will post separately on the budget, but the City is in very solid financial shape and, we appear set to have another surplus at the end of this fiscal year (assuming current trends continue). There are many municipalities around the state that are not so fortunate (and are having to figure out how to keep their lights on), and I believe the way everyone in this City pulled together this year has a lot to do with the numbers we are seeing.

I’ll post more in the coming days, but if there’s anything in particular you have a question about, feel free to leave a comment below.

it security

An update from our workshop on Tuesday:

We spent the first part of the meeting getting an update on some of the IT projects that our IT Specialist, Seth Norket, has been working on over the last 12-18 months. The highlights include replacing over 100 pieces of old and outdated equipment (which is not only inefficient but also a security risk), the installation of cloud surveillance devices around City buildings, installing fleet-tracking GPS devices on City-owned vehicles, upgrading the City phone system to provide better service to callers and greater accountability for staff, refreshing the City website (which is now faster and more secure), and implementing a modernized job-tracking system that allows for better management of man hours but also includes an online portal where residents can submit service requests (https://www.cityofbelmont.org/services). If you create an account, you can also track the status of your request, and a text-for-service system is currently in pilot.

We covered a lot of ground, so I would encourage you to watch the full presentation (http://ow.ly/h0El50De5fu), but it’s clear that we’re making a lot of progress in providing better security and better service (for both staff and residents) with our technology.

Planning staff then provided an update on various transportation projects from around the City. Many projects were pushed back as a result of NCDOT’s cash problems last year, with the result that projects like the I-85 widening and the improvements to the Wilkinson Blvd/Main Street intersection are now looking at potentially starting in 2025. On the Silver Line, a potential site at Hawley Ave and Wilkinson Blvd (in front of BB&T) is being considered for the location of Belmont’s station. And if you haven’t already, I would encourage you to complete the public survey for the Catawba Crossings project (http://ow.ly/Zq1750De5rt). Public comment for that project is open through Feb. 4.

blueprints

Next week is shaping up to be a busy week. There is a City Council Workshop on Tuesday (the 19th), a Planning Board Meeting on Thursday (the 21st), and Council’s annual retreat kicks off on Friday (the 22nd). All meetings are at CityWorks.

Agenda for Workshop
Agenda for Planning Board

At our workshop on Tuesday, we will be getting an update from the City’s IT staff about the various software and technology upgrades that have been made over the last few years. We will also be getting an overview of how the City is guarding against cybersecurity threats. It should be a very interesting presentation.

We will also be getting an update on various transportation and pedestrian improvement projects planned and/or underway in the City. Council will also be discussing a potential leasing of the old Planning Department building (which was vacated when the Planning staff moved to CityWorks).
On Thursday, the Planning Board will be hearing two development proposals. The first is a Habitat for Humanity Project in North Belmont (off Lee Road) for 28 mixed-income single-family homes. A summary of the proposal is here: Link

The second proposal is for the Smith Property located directly across from the new Belmont Middle School on South Point Road. The project calls for 43 single-family homes and 56 townhomes and provides for the realignment and reconstruction of the intersection of Belwood Drive and South Point Road. A summary of the proposal is here: Link

If you would like to comment on either of those projects, you can either comment in person at the Planning Board’s meeting or email your comments to the Planning staff before the meeting (contacts for each project are located here: https://www.cityofbelmont.org/projects/). I am also happy to pass along your comments to staff if you would like.

Council’s annual retreat will be Friday evening and Saturday morning (1/22-23). The agenda is still being finalized, but it will be open to the public. I will post more information on this as it becomes available.

If you have any questions, let me know!

Belmont Apartments

At the Montcross Chamber candidates forum last week, there was a lot of talk about growth – which makes sense given the mess that our roads are in, an ever-rising cost of living, and schools that have more students than seats. So, it was quite concerning to hear the three candidates who have perhaps more than anyone given the green light to the development currently overwhelming the city (through their current positions on city council and the zoning board) indicate that not only do they not get it, they actually want to accelerate it.

In the course of a discussion on the light rail (which according to current plans would pass through the Wilkinson Blvd corridor), these three candidates said that we actually need to bring in even more apartment development along Wilkinson Blvd so that there’s more people around to ride the light rail. This is exactly wrong for three reasons:

  1. Clearly none of these three commute up and down the 74/85 corridor every day. If they did, they’d realize that traffic there is already a mess, so throwing in a bunch of high-density, multi-story apartment buildings is only going to make getting up and down Wilkinson that much worse. The light rail is not some magical solution that will make all of our traffic woes disappear. At best, it will take some traffic off the road – but if you don’t control growth along Wilkinson, then whatever car trips you’re saving will quickly be overwhelmed by all the new car trips generated by the brand-new apartment buildings.
  2. CATS (Charlotte’s transit system) always overestimates how many people will end up using the light rail. The Blue Line Extension has been open for about 18 months now – and ridership is still about 10,000 riders less than what Charlotte initially projected for the line. So, this idea that everyone who lives in these shiny new apartment buildings is just going to hop on the light rail and never drive anywhere is pure fantasy. Sure, some of those people may ride the light rail, but most won’t.
  3. We really need to get away from this build now and ask questions later approach to development. If there’s anything to be learned from the situation down on South Point Road, it’s that you can’t build a bunch of housing and then hope somebody else (the state, the county, Charlotte?) will swoop in and save us from ourselves. Currently, the Silver Line is nothing more than an unfunded line on a map, which even in a best-case scenario won’t be operational until at least 2030. Has anyone considered what we’re supposed to do if we build out Wilkinson and the light rail gets pushed out to a 2035 or 2040 opening? What if the project gets cancelled? It’s happened in NC before.

What we need is careful, thoughtful planning based on the actual facts on the ground. Planning for the light rail is important, but it’s imprudent to unleash an avalanche of apartment development on Wilkinson in anticipation of a project that may or may not ever happen.

sad puppy

For everyone who has to commute to work everyday, we find ourselves leaving ever earlier in the morning just to get to work on time while getting home ever later in the evening. The very real cost of this increasingly soul-crushing commute – lost family time, lost productivity, and lost sanity – often isn’t fully appreciated by those signing off on the development of massive new apartment complexes.

While Council could do more to avoid making this problem worse (such as by adhering to existing zoning regulations), how do you think we can make this situation better? Something I have noticed trudging up and down Wilkinson Blvd every day is the relatively quick cycle times of the traffic lights (as in traffic barely starts moving before the light flips back to red again) and a lack of real synchronization between the traffic lights strung throughout the corridor. I have heard some people talk about installing traffic circles at some intersections – There’s obviously a cost to build them as well as a learning curve for drivers learning how to use them (since they aren’t very common in our area). Mass transit is another option – The light rail is allegedly on its way, but there is only one bus that runs between Belmont and Charlotte (and on a very limited schedule at that).

What are the chokepoints in your commute? What are some solutions you’d like to see? Would you ride a bus? Are you excited for (or maybe dreading) the arrival of the light rail? Let me know in the comments below!