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Wednesday, 22 May 2013 00:00

Maggie logjam shows no sign of breaking ‘til fall election

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The Maggie Valley Board of Aldermen have been mired in gridlock for nearly nine months.

With only four town board members at the moment — instead of the typical five — stalemates have ruled the day. From major issues to petty ones, the board has been marked by tie votes and split opinions. Infighting has become the typical interaction at meetings these days.

 

“It’s an embarrassment,” said Alderwoman Saralyn Price.

People she encounters constantly ask what the town leaders are arguing about this week. 

“Everybody in that room is for Maggie Valley. If we could just agree to disagree, it would be wonderful,” Price said.

And although the board members claim they want to work better together, the two sides — Mayor Ron DeSimone and Price on one, and Aldermen Mike Matthews and Phillip Wight on the other — they instead are staring down the barrel of their most critical decision yet.

It’s budget time, and the two sides have markedly different ideas about the town budget.

The town ended up in this predicament after Former Alderman Phil Aldridge moved away in August, leaving an empty seat on the board.

Typically, the remaining board members would appoint someone to fill the empty seat until the next town election rolls around. But the town board found themselves divided into twos and unable to reach an agreement even on who to appoint.

Now, Maggie Valley voters will decide who to elect as the fifth alderman this November — at last giving the advantage to one side or the other.

Meanwhile, without a fifth alderman to cast the deciding vote, the board has struggled to compromise. Members have gotten into arguments, claiming the other side is lying or trying to hide something.

“They didn’t have to compromise before,” DeSimone said, referring to the majority they had when Aldridge was still on the board. “Now, they have to compromise. They just usually won’t.” 

The most contentious issue so far has been a proposed lodging tax increase.

With only four people on the board, the aldermen could end up at a major impasse when it comes time to vote on the budget.

“I am certainly willing to talk about this budget,” DeSimone said. But “Wight has indicated to the town manager on numerous occasions that he doesn’t think a budget would be passed.”

In an interview, Wight said he hopes the board members can come together on the budget.

“We made some good decisions last year and cut costs,” Wight said.

 

Red-lining the budget 

Town Manager Tim Barth presented the budget at the town board meeting earlier this month.

There are few changes compared to the prior year. The tax rate will remain the same, and departments will only see a nominal allocation increase, according to the draft budget.

The notable differences include a recommended 3 percent cost of living increase for town employees, the purchase of three new vehicles, and additional money for overtime worked by police officers and the police DARE program.

Price commended Barth for the budget.

“They have balanced the budget without raising taxes, and they have been reasonable doing it,” Price said. “I think it’s a very good budget.”

The mayor also indicated that he was fine with the proposed budget as presented.

“I don’t really have any issues with it,” DeSimone said.

However, Matthews and Wight handed out a list of changes they would like to see.

“We all need to sit down in a workshop and hash it out. I want to get as much bang for our buck,” Matthews said. “The police department has the largest budget so that is the one we have to look at first.”

The budget for the Maggie police department came under scrutiny last year as well, with some members of the public complaining that the police force is over-sized for such a small town.

Some wiggle room in the police budget this year is the purchase of two new cop cars, according to Matthews and Wight.

Last year, Wight argued in favor of postponing the purchase of two new police vehicles for another year, and the other board members agreed. However, now, he wants to delay the purchase again, saying that the town should work on paying off debt it already owes rather than taking on more.

“If we pay some more debt off, we can maintain the level of government service we have right now without raising taxes,” Wight said, asking the police department to “sacrifice another year.”

The proposed budget doesn’t call for a tax increase or a reduction in services. However, delaying the new vehicle purchases will cause the police department’s car maintenance budget to go up. This fiscal year, the department has already spent between $4,500 and $5,000 on maintenance of the two vehicles — a cost that will only increase as the vehicles grow one year older.

“It’s definitely an issue when you start tampering with a vehicle rotation. The purpose of the vehicle rotation is to save money over time,” said Maggie Police Chief Scott Sutton. 

If the town does not replace any of the police cars, Sutton said he will need to increase his maintanence budget.

“The money I have requested will not cover that,” Sutton said.

Years ago when she first started working as a police officer in Maggie, Alderwoman Price said the department had two old cars with more than 200,000 miles that often needed repair.

“We were paying more for repairs in a year than we did for a new car,” she said, adding that the practice of rotating two cars out every year kept the town from overspending on maintenance. “That plan was put into place for a reason.”

If the town waits another year, there’s a chance it will have to play catch up and shell out more in a single year rather than spreading out the cost. According to the budget, Maggie would pay $14,000 a year for four years to pay the cars off.

Matthews said he plans to talk to department heads, including Police Chief Scott Sutton, before the town’s budget hearing in late June to see where the budget might be cut further.

“I would love to see if we can cut it 10 percent [from the police budget], but if we can’t, we can’t,” Matthews said, adding that postponing the police car purchases could count toward the 10 percent. Matthews did not know where specifically the cuts could come from.

As a former police chief who had to craft the department’s budget, Price said such a cut would hinder its ability to adequately perform its job.

“I don’t know how they think they can cut it 10 percent,” Price said. “They are not going to be able to function as they normally would.”

While Matthew’s and Wight’s changes would take money away from the police department, it would allocate $5,000 to pay for more decorative winter lighting.

“They need to buy their holiday lights,” quipped Sutton.

Matthews’ and Wight’s list also included making the compensation for aldermen and the mayor equal. Right now, Maggie’s mayor earns $6,600 a year while the aldermen receive $4,200 a year.

DeSimone said he believed the point was only added to the list to take a jab at him.

“That is a bit vindictive,” DeSimone said. “It is not a serious negotiating point.”

The stipend paid to mayors is almost always more than the stipend town board members receive.

Price backed the mayor, saying he works harder and takes on more responsibilities.

“I am not for that,” Price said. “The mayor, he spends a lot of his time working on town business.”

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