By Yustin Riopko
WAXHAW – Town commissioners encouraged staff at a July 28 meeting to take baby steps toward a new capital improvement plan.
CIP plans typically identify schedules for big-budget priorities like new vehicles, buildings, sidewalks and parks spanning four to 10 years. Town Manager Jeffrey Wells and Finance Director Rosemary Bernauer have proposed a sort of short-term “phase one” CIP for the next year.
“We gotta start thinking about the big picture,” Wells told commissioners. “We’re not the town we were at the turn of the century. We will continue to ensure that we have the proper infrastructure, the proper equipment, and the proper ability to provide good services to our citizens. We have to look to the future.”
Waxhaw’s population of around 3,000 at the turn of the century has risen to almost 20,000 and according to Wells will continue to grow exponentially.
Town staff will immediately begin working on two projects as a result of this unofficial CIP.
First, $175,000 is set aside for a new Public Services/Parks and Recreation building at the intersection of Waxhaw-Marvin Road and Kensington Drive. That money is to cover preliminary work including surveying cost and topography studies as well as architectural and site design. Wells hopes to break ground in summer 2021 on that project.
Second is the beginning of a new downtown safety plan. This is the first phase of the Downtown Transportation Alternatives Program, which eventually aims to improve pedestrian and bicyclist safety in the downtown area with connected sidewalks, clearer crosswalks and new signals. This first phase will focus on just the most vital safety, ADA and connectivity issues.
Some other capital improvements leaders are keeping in mind include a street sweeper truck, downtown parking, electric vehicle charging stations, Carolina Thread Trail extensions and the 12-acre Horton property south of downtown – the top priority in Waxhaw’s Park Master Plan.
But the coronavirus hasn’t made capital improvement easy. According to a report from the NC League of Municipalities, revenues are expected to drop $599 million statewide due to the coronavirus. Sales tax revenue alone is projected to drop $300 million statewide by the end of the year. Wells emphasized that Waxhaw relies on sales tax for a lot of its revenue.
Rather than recovering lost funds through taxes or issuing bonds however, leaders have decided to turn to unused assets, with the town planner recommending the sale of five specific underused properties.
“The land that we’ve acquired, particularly over the last decade, is like a sports car,” Wells said. “We bought this lovely sports car, but we didn’t know how to drive stick shift, so it has zero miles on it, it’s been sitting in our garage and it’s costing us money still.”
The specific properties Wells recommended selling are the Niven Price building at 216 W. N. Main St., the Town Annex Building at 321 N. Broome St., and three other unused parcels of land: 2 acres off Waxhaw-Monroe Road, 16.3-acres off Kensington Drive and 34.6 acres off Waxhaw-Marvin Road. Although the board encouraged town staff to go ahead with the sale of those five properties, the Town Annex Building may take longer since it was once Waxhaw’s town hall and still houses the parks and recreation department.
Over the last 13 years the town spent $5.6 million acquiring and maintaining those properties. Wells and Bernauer now believe turning these properties back into cash via upset bids would be best, identifying the COVID climate as a seller’s market.
“In life and in business sometimes we have an emotional attachment to things,” Bernauer said. “So I understand that there is an emotional attachment to some of the property we’re suggesting that we utilize as an asset. But it hasn’t really paid off. We’re not really managing those assets in a way that’s fiscally responsible.”
While the entire board supports the idea, some members worry about the longevity of this plan. Commissioner Pedro Morey is one of them.
“Whatever we decide to do with this property will get us but so far,” Morey said. “Keeping in mind that we’ve been affected to a certain extent this year, next year will carry us through pretty much what we’ve had to do this year.”
Wells acknowledged the board’s concern, mentioning the unassigned capital fund balance – or savings account – as a backup for next year, but he also stressed the importance of pressing forward.
“We have infrastructure needs. We have transportation needs,” Wells said. “And we have to find a way to keep up with those and provide that to our citizens. And I think the best way to do that is to sell these assets that we have, and then we can dedicate the sale of those to that purpose to be able to create a CIP plan.”
Bernauer added that money gained from the sales would increase not only the town’s pocket cash, but also its borrowing threshold.
Mayor Ron Pappas believes, in light of the coronavirus, now more than ever is the time for leaders to be proactive.
“We have projects right now that are coming online which will certainly increase our revenue stream,” Pappas said. “But again, all of this is offsetting what we’re not getting because of COVID. Is there a better day ahead of us? We certainly will think positively and think that there is, but we need to act like the town the size that we are right now and make sure that we move toward these goals.”