News Column

Road bond issue faces a vote

August 20, 2014

By Rochelle Moore, The Wilson Daily Times, N.C.

Aug. 20--The Wilson City Council will vote Thursday night on whether to seek a $20 million bond referendum to repair and repave more than 40 miles of roadway in the city.

But questions surfaced during a Tuesday work session about whether the bond, which could include a property tax increase, would be supported by Wilson voters. The proposal includes either a 6 cent increase in property taxes for a 10-year bond, with $1.7 million in annual debt service payments, or a 4 cent tax increase for a 15-year bond, with $1.2 million in annual debt service.

"I don't think it's going to pass," Councilwoman Gwen Burton said.

Mayor Bruce Rose said he knows many in the city who wouldn't support the bond. The council also revisited a 2008 quarter-cent sales tax referendum Wilson County voters rejected. The commissioners sought the tax to increase their revenues by about $2 million a year.

"It was only a quarter cent and it failed," said Grant Goings, city manager.

The council's interest in a bond referendum started last year at the request of Councilman Donald Evans who expressed an interest in improving city streets. Evans believes there's support for the bond.

"I don't see a problem with a 4 cent tax increase in a bond referendum," Evans said. "Voters are going to vote on it. If they vote it down, we're going to regroup."

Bryant Bunn, a city engineer, and Bill Bass, a civil engineer, presented the council with the results of a pavement condition survey that included a detailed review of 230 miles of city streets. The survey showed that 43.5 miles are in need of repair and have little, if any, life span left. Streets that are in need of repair scored at 60 points or lower out of a score of 100.

"Anything that has a 60 or less, it has a remaining life of zero or less," Bunn said.

The survey also provided six different pavement treatments with two including traditional repaving and four including ways to preserve the roads. Repaving options include structural overlay and mill and overlay and preservation treatments include chip seal, cape seal, slurry seal and crack seal. Repaving can cost between $10 and $14 per square yard and preservation treatments can be anywhere between $2.25 to $4.50 per square yard, depending on the type of treatment, Bass said.

The $20 million bond proposal includes about $9.7 million for a combination of the pavement treatments, Bunn said.

Also included in the cost are 19 miles of new sidewalks, mostly near schools or to fill in gaps, at $2 million; 24 miles of sidewalk maintenance at $2 million; curb and gutters for $200,000; sharrows, or bicycle lanes, for $60,000; and $2 million each for water, sewer and storm drain improvements.

The need to improve city streets surfaced in October when the council was told that the city's street maintenance program was backlogged and unable to keep up with demand. The upkeep is supposed to be on a 30-year cycle but is closer to a 70 or 80 year cycle, Harry Tyson, the city's deputy manager, told the council.

The $1.3 million in Powell Bill funds the city receives each year for road repairs isn't keeping up with demand, Bunn said. The $20 million is an estimated cost for the city to catch up to citywide road needs, Goings said.

"I do want you to consider if you do put it up for a vote and it doesn't pass," Goings said.

Goings also said that property taxes could be affected depending on the result of property revaluations that will change in 2016. In past years, revaluations have led to increased property taxes and increased revenue for the city. Upcoming revaluations are more uncertain.

"Historically, traditionally, the only time you've had substantial revenue growth is once every eight years so you get a boost once every eight years and you milk it all the way out," Goings said. "That has been Wilson's history that we try to keep the rate as low as we can, relatively flat.

"We don't know what's going to happen with revaluation. If valuations come down, then that would be a conditional thing you need to consider."

Rose said he'd rather wait until revaluation figures are known before a decision is made about a bond referendum.

"What I'd like to see us do is take this information and come back later and talk about it," Rose said. "I think it needs to wait for revaluation."

Councilman Tom Fyle said he supports Evans' interest in improving city streets but also believes more time is needed to consider the proposal.

Goings said the council could consider setting aside money in the budget each year toward a street maintenance program or seek a sales tax increase to pay for the work. Councilman James Johnson III didn't think Wilson has much of a chance in getting legislative support for an increase in the sales tax.

"We couldn't get out-of-town money approved for our occupancy tax rate," Johnson said. "Do you think the legislature is going to give us the ability to do a sales tax?"

A House bill proposing an occupancy tax increase from 3 to 6 percent did not pass in the legislature this year after opposition was raised by a majority of Wilson hotel owners.

Fyle asked if the referendum could include a sunset date when the bond is paid off. Goings said such wording could be included on the ballot.

"The way I think it should work is that it's there until the debt is paid," Goings said.

Johnson recommended that the council vote on the bond referendum during its Thursday meeting, at 7 p.m. in City Hall. Thursday is the last day the council can decide on adding the referendum to the November ballot in the general election.

The city's property tax rate of 51.5 cents per $100 in property valuation has remained unchanged for the past nine years. -- 265-7818


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Source: Wilson Daily Times (NC)

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