Elevator takes back seat to drainage

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Stormwater fee bites dust during New Bern ‘retreat’

Elected officials in New Bern heard from the directors of city departments during a day-long retreat on Saturday.

Matt Montanye, Director of Public Works

NEW BERN – ‘Year of the Elevator!’  has been the cry of Mayor Dana Outlaw, as this town heads into its budget-planning process for the coming fiscal year.  That steep, winding staircase to the second floor of historic City Hall (where most Board of Aldermen meetings are held) unquestionably impedes citizen attendance!

Discussion of a possible design for a City Hall elevator certainly got plenty of attention during the Board’s annual retreat. However, based upon the city officials’ tough decisions on Saturday, it looks like 2019 may well shape up as the ‘Year of Improved Drainage’ – with apologies to Mayor Outlaw for the paraphrase.

The quest for better drainage throughout the city has become a hot topic in the wake of widespread flooding triggered by Hurricane Florence. Proposed drainage improvements – proffered by Matt Montanye, the city’s hard-working director of Public Works – definitely trumped the day’s conscientious elevator deliberations.


Kudos to all seven of the town’s elected officials – who stuck with every minute of the day’s grueling eight-hour session!

The retreat featured an overview and iteration of strategic goals from veteran City Manager Mark Stephens, detailed calculations from Director of Finance J.R. Sabatelli, and thorough presentations from directors of various city departments. However, Montanye – with his exhaustive list of potential drainage prospects – got the most face time!

And, as one might expect, discussions of drainage inevitably led to discussions of the city’s ‘stormwater fee,’ originally imposed in 2012 and tacked onto the monthly utility bill of every household. For the first seven months of the current fiscal year, the fee has raised approximately $367,000 – a not insignificant figure, but far from adequate as the Aldermen contemplated Montanye’s exhaustive list of proposed drainage prospects!

A half dozen or so projects (already underway) are quickly gobbling up available stormwater funds! And, Montanye’s  ‘wish list’ totaled another 25, with a staggering price tag!

Late in the day’s exhaustive deliberations – credit Alderman Jeff Odham for suggesting an innovative – though complicated — plan to quickly fund at least some Montanye’s newest recommendations. After a good bit of explaining about how the plan would work, Odham won support from Outaw, and from fellow board members Johnnie Ray Kinsey and Bobby Aster.

Aldermen Barbara Best, Jamey Harris, and Sabrina Bengel – each voted against the measure. The ladies made it clear they support better drainage, but their opposition partially stems from the counter intuitive process that Odham’s motion requires.

Approved by a 4 to 3 vote, Odham’s plan first calls for doing away, effective July 1, with that pesky stormwater fee that shows up each month on the utility bills of most city households!

Kill that fee, explained Odham, then the half million remaining in the FORMER stormwater fund can be matched up with a cool million already allocated in the city’s current budget. Voila! Pretty soon Montanye and his public works elves will have $1.5 million to tackle that long list of drainage improvement projects!

Before Odham’s motion,  Montanye would have been limited to just the half million remaining in the stormwater fund.

Mayor Outlaw, no fan of the stormwater fee, explained it to his colleagues this way: “The stormwater fee is a regressive tax that discourages investment in our city. It is very confusing, and you have to get on the phone to talk with the people from the UNC School of Government to see exactly where you are allowed to spend it on this and that!”

The extra million for drainage comes from an existing $2 million appropriation in the current city budget – originally intended for street repairs. The hoped-for trade-off?  A few potholes, perhaps, in exchange for better citywide drainage!

Odham mandated that his motion to kill all stormwater fees should be ‘revenue neutral’ – done by increasing the property tax rate (for the next fiscal year) by whatever amount is required so that total monies flowing into city coffers remain the same.

That raised the ire of Aldermen Best, Harris, and Bengel – the trio who voted against Odham’s plan.

“I’m not in favor of raising (property) taxes,” said an unequivocal Alderman Barbara Best, echoing the sentiments of Harris and Bengel.

Oh yes! How about that daunting task of designing an elevator shaft for historic City Hall (constructed long before the Americans with Disability Act)? The goal remains on the stove – just not on the front burner! Montanye has more elevator homework to do, and is expected back at a future Board of Aldermen meeting.