Saturday, February 9, 2013

Why is This a Controversy?

After Safe Haven was filmed in Southport it was decided that our film ordinance needed an update. A committee was formed to draft a new document (either as an ordinance or as a policy) to deal with film productions in the future. The Board of Aldermen will be voting to adopt the new filming guidelines at the February 14, 2013 meeting after receiving public input. In addition, we will vote to determine whether these guidelines will be in the form a board policy or part of the city’s Code of Ordinances.

The controversy is not whether to accept the new document produced, but rather whether or not it should be an ordinance or a policy.  Here's some food for thought.

Putting these guidelines in the Code of Ordinances will have a negative effect on Southport’s ability to attract film production business.The new guidelines are based in part on those of Wilmington, NC: a city with the reputation of being extremely film friendly and with a history of success in using their guidelines. The vast majority of cities with film guidelines have them as a policy.

Ordinances are the laws of the city. By their nature they contain as little gray area as possible and are meant to be definitive, inflexible rules to be followed as close to the letter as possible. Policy guidelines have the same power as ordinances in that they are "the law" and must be enforced as such. The difference is that the language in policy guidelines contains more flexibility and allows the film liaison and city manager some leeway in granting permission for filming activities. This flexibility is essential as no two film production’s requests are the same. If the flexibility is not available--as it would NOT be in an ordinance--they are likely to go elsewhere.

Below are some talking points:

  • If it is decided that these guidelines should be adopted as an ordinance, they must be rewritten to remove any flexibility. In a sense they will no longer be guidelines but rather a rigid set of directives with no room for discussion and accommodation.
  • Film productions have many requirements when considering a filming location. Policy guidelines allow enough flexibility to help accommodate those needs while still protecting persons and property in the city. An ordinance has no flexibility and this will discourage many film and TV productions from considering Southport as a viable location.
  • Policy guidelines carry the full weight of law. An ordinance offers no greater legal protection for the city or our citizens.
  • The location requirements of every film and TV production are different. Policy/guidelines provide the film liaison and the city manager with a framework that enables them to meet the needs of a wide range of production situations. Ordinances are a “take it or leave it” proposition with no room for variance.
  • Changes are often needed to the guidelines to be sure they are still meeting the needs of the city. Changing policy guidelines is a much easier process than changing an ordinance. Whenever an ordinance is changed it must be codified; a process that costs the city money. Changing a policy is free.
Film production schedules are in a constant state of flux. Changes and rescheduling are the rule rather than the exception. Policy guidelines allow for changes and fast decisions that an ordinance does not. Any requested deviation from an ordinance—however slight—must go to the Board of Aldermen. This is an unnecessary and cumbersome procedure that does not lend itself well to the process of filmmaking. The monitoring and enforcement of the film guidelines is—and should always be—an administrative process, not a political one. 

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Solution for City Hall

I'm sure most of you have read the media reports regarding the purchase of a building at 1029 N. Howe Street by the City of Southport. It is the culmination of 3 years of study by the Board of Aldermen and--best of all--the city can afford it.
Southport City Hall

The current city hall is an obsolete and run-down mess. The estimated cost of renovations to make it a usable, comfortable, and safe work environment is $3.1 million. Even then, a renovation cannot correct all of the flaws the building has being as old as it is.

The true historical value of the current city hall (formerly the Brunswick County Courthouse) is unknown to me and the rest of the board. That aspect will have to be determined before the fate of the building is decided. It is anticipated that a committee consisting of a number of citizens will be appointed to help make the final decision. More information is likely to be revealed at next Thursday's monthly Board of Aldermen meeting.

Several evaluations and studies have determined that the building at 1029 N. Howe Street is in excellent shape and only needs some updated maintenance, a good exterior painting, and some minor interior alterations. It will also meet the space needs for our city for many years to come. That the transition can be almost immediate (in government time) and no office will have to move into temporary space is a bonus.

How can we afford to purchase this building? While the details have yet to be determined, it is likely that the city will pay cash. It will come from the unrestricted general fund balance (and a few other funds). This is exactly the type of use the reserve fund balance was designed for. There will be enough in the overall fund balance to fulfill any urgent needs should they arise. But it gets better.
1029 N. Howe Street

The property the city owns which housed our former sewage treatment facility will now be put up for sale. The city has had offers for the property in the past (and recently). It is estimated that the sale of this property will more than offset the price of the new city hall. The proceeds from this sale would go to restore the general fund balance with some left over to begin other badly needed capital projects (like the waterfront).

I know that citizens don't typically care about the quality of the work space used by our city staff. But our employees desperately need a better one in order to be efficient and productive. The current city hall, due to deterioration and past negligence, may even pose health issues. This demands immediate correction. A high quality work environment also boosts employee morale and retention. Their work satisfaction goes up and even better service is provided to our citizens.

I hope you'll agree that purchasing the building at 1029 N. Howe Street for our new city hall is prudent and visionary move. If you have any questions or comments please let me know.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Number Crunching with the Tourism Budget

There have been statements by an alderman and the mayor that the City is spending slightly more on tourism this year than in past budgets. The city manager supported this position in a letter to the State Port Pilot. While it is not a straightforward process to compare the 2012-13 budget to previous ones, below is my math on the situation. The bottom line: the 2012-13 budget for tourism is less than it was for 2011-12.

Here are 3 columns from the official 2012-13 budget that represent the approved version for 2012-13 and actual expenditures from 2011-12:

                                                        2011-12      2012-13          2012-13
                                                      Expenses   Recommended   Approved
Salaries                                             38,560        47,550            47,550
Part-Time Salaries                              43,000        45,800                0       *
FICA                                                   6,200          7,140             3,640
Retirement                                         3,180          3,200             3,200
Insurance (employees)                         9,750          8,930             8,930
401K supplement                                 2,311          2,380             2,380
Dept. Supplies Community Bldg.           3,000          5,500                 0     *
Dept. Supplies Special Events               5,000          7,500             1,800
Dept. Supplies Visitor Center                5,000          6,100             5,500
Inventory for resale                               n/a          10,000           10,000
Misc.                                                 1,100             540                250
Travel & Training                                   0                900                400
Communications Comm. Bldg.               2,950          2,160                0      *
Communications Visitor Center                700          5,000             2,640
Utilities Community Bldg.                    16,500        17,000                0      *
Utilities Visitor Center                         6,000         15,000           15,000
R/M Facilities Comm. Bldg.                  7,000         19,500               0       *
R/M Facilities Visitor Ctr.                     2,000          6,700            4,200
Insurance Comm. Bldg.                        3,436          3,970                0       *
Insurance Visitor Ctr.                           2,200          4,280             4,280
Asset Purchases-non capital                 11,600         2,800             1,000
Capital Outlay-Facilities                      48,200         2,000                0      **
Contract Services                                  150             250                0
TOTAL                                            217,859      214,200         110,770
* = moved to Community Bldg.  ** = Garrison House remodel

First of all, the tourism budget for 2012-13 is $110,770 as you can see on the right hand column. It includes $10,000 for inventory for the Visitor's Center which didn't exist before this budget year, so the 2012-13 budget total for comparison to 2011-12 should be $100,770. That $10,000 for inventory will also be covered by sales revenue, which did not exist in 2011-12 either, but we'll leave it in the 2012-13 budget for this comparison.

The projected expenditures for 2011-12 are $217,859 (see FY 2011-12 Expenses column). The 2011-12 budget for tourism was actually $238,662 but only $217,859 was spent. We must subtract the Garrison House remodeling cost of $48,222, as it was a one-time expense, for a total of $169,637.

To equalize the budget comparison we need to subtract expenses for the Community Building (which is now a separate department) from the 2011-12 expenses. These include department supplies, utilities, insurance etc. for a total of $43,322. Minus this amount, the total for 2011-12 for comparison to 2012-13 is $126,315.

Projected Expenses (or 2011-12 tourism budget) $126,315
  Minus 2012-13 Tourism budget $110,770

The 2012-13 Tourism budget is less than 2011-12 budget by $15,545, which is a 12% reduction.

If the $10,000 for inventory is removed, the 2012-13 budget is $100,770 for a difference of $25,545 less than 2011-12, or a 20% reduction.

The table above also shows areas where the aldermen voted to reduce the tourism budget below what was recommended by the city manager (compare middle column to right column).That is $13,650 worth of direct reductions, plus another $10,000 for a part time position that was moved from tourism to the community building for a grand total of $23,650 in last minute reductions. Add this amount to the 2012-13 budget and it is $134,420, which is $8,105 more than 2011-12 or a 6% increase. 2 other aldermen and I were only asking for this modest increase, but 3 aldermen and the mayor refused to do that. 

Actions speak louder than rhetoric, and the board's actions show less support for tourism in 2012-13 than in 2011-12. If you have any questions about my math please let me know. If this concerns you as to how your elected officials are managing the tourism budget, please let them know.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Agendas Revealed

I haven't posted in a while because the experience of being an alderman here in Southport has been incredibly dispiriting and disappointing. It's not just that I cannot get any support for my positions on the various issues facing the board. It's that the decisions themselves have not been in the best interests of the city. Instead, most decisions are being made to fulfill personal agendas. I can write volumes giving you examples, but I'll concentrate on the end result of the most recent budget meetings. The bottom line is the last round of budget cuts did not help Southport and it's citizens. In fact, it hurts our city in many ways.

The most egregious budget cuts involve eliminating 2 positions: a part time assistant for the Director of Tourism & Economic Development and the Director of Planning. Neither cut saves the city a significant amount of money ($10,000 for the assistant, about $14,000 for the planner). The end result is a decrease in city services even though there was plenty of money in the budget to accommodate these positions. We are also a city without a city planner, which should be an embarrassment instead of a prudent, budget conscious decision.
Both decisions were made for totally political reasons. The mayor, and the aldermen who do whatever he says, have wanted to get rid of our planner, Amy Nelson, for several months. 3 aldermen and the mayor expressed a desire to get rid of her on a number of occasions. They didn't like Amy and wanted her gone, even if it meant that the city would be without a key staff position. Mission accomplished...but the city is much worse off as a result.

At the meeting when the planner position was cut NOT ONE SINGLE ALDERMAN would speak to why we should make this move. This tells me that nobody could think up a reason other than they simply didn't want Amy on the payroll despite her raising over $175,000 in grant money for the city and doing a terrific job as planner. The mayor actually praised Amy for being instrumental in securing a Great Places in NC award all the while knowing that she was about to be terminated. Personnel decisions are the province of the city manager. If Amy was doing a good job he would have the option of firing her. That was not the case. The city manager put the removal of her position on the list of potential cuts because, I strongly believe, the mayor pressured him to do so.

The part time assistant for the Director of Tourism was critical in developing and completing the new visitor's center and museum at the Garrison House. Now, the Director of Tourism (Cindy Brochure) must run the center and store, account for all cash transactions and accounting, as well as work on initiatives to increase the number of visitors to our city. This simply cannot be done by one person. 

The individual who was in that position of part time assistant has extensive experience with historical museums. She was invaluable in creating our beautiful new visitors center and museum and could have been instrumental in developing the changing displays that the museum hopes to offer so visitors and residents can enjoy multiple visits to our newest showcase. Now we'll have one person doing the job of 2. This is a recipe for failure. Just when we are finally getting benefits from having a director of Tourism, the mayor and his supporters are cutting back in a department that focuses on the economic life blood of our city. 

The ultimate plan is to eliminate the tourism department. Business owners in town will not be pleased about this eventual development as they have benefited from this departments progress. The businesses have finally been brought together by Cindy and they are working together for the benefit of all businesses in town. In the next budget--if the mayor and his supporters have their way--the position of Director of Tourism will be on the chopping block. No city planner. No tourism department. How does that make our city better?

At the budget meeting when all the cuts were decided, I made a presentation that clearly pointed out that the city's projected revenues would cover the operating expenses. Many of the budget cuts actually involved putting money away to spend on specific capital improvement projects that we will be taking up during this fiscal year. Now, we are actually in a position where our projected revenues will be greater than our operating expenses. We are not a for-profit company in the private sector. We are a city that provides services to our citizens. This budget squeezes a "profit" out of a situation by cutting city services when we could easily afford them.

If any of this bothers you I strongly recommend that you tell the mayor, the aldermen, and even speak up at a future meeting. The city is going in the wrong direction. It is going according to the agenda developed by the mayor and put forth by his blind supporters on the board. I sincerely hope folks remember this when they go to vote in 2013.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas and an Interesting New Year

What a long, strange year it has been. Winter has not officially established itself in the Lower Cape Fear region. It was 70 degrees F on the first day of winter and a white Christmas looks like a long shot with the projected high in the mid-60's. Folks always look for a deeper meaning when weather patterns are turned on their head (global warming! it's gonna be a freezing spring, the collards won't be good, etc.). Actually, that last one is true in that collards need that first frost, but we'll manage. My read on the unseasonable weather? Enjoy it.

The 2012 looks to be a significant one for Southport city government. We'll be hiring a new city manager, which will have more impact on the city and our citizens than anything else we'll do as a governing board. 2 bits of good news on that front: 1) At our preliminary thinning of the herd, the agreement by the board on the top 10 prospects was unanimous, and 2) We have a good number of qualified, experienced candidates. Expect a decision sometime in January.

Chez Buchanan et Karn, Winter 2010
The new city manager will have to jump right in and hire a new Public Services Director (an extremely critical position in our city). The budget planning process will also begin as soon as he/she arrives. I'm excited to work with whomever the new manager will be, but it has been a dream working with Regina Alexander, our City Clerk and interim manager. I feel that nobody fully appreciates the incredible job she has done over the past 11 months. Above and beyond doesn't even begin to describe her efforts and achievements.

Other things to look forward to during the first part of 2012 include:

  • Getting the Department of Tourism and Economic Development up and running, which includes moving the Visitors Center to the Garrison House, development of the historical exhibits in the redesigned space, and implementation of our new director's plans for promoting Southport as a destination for visitors, potential new residents and businesses.
  • A new committee will be evaluating all of the fees and deposits charged by the various departments in the city with an eye towards making them as fair and affordable as possible. This has never been done in Southport and it's high time we took on this task.
  • Begin remodeling, reconstruction and repair on all of our city buildings. City Hall is first on the list. It will take a great deal of planning, money and patience but it is something that has been overlooked for far too long.
  • A solution for managing the odor problem from our sewer pump stations, most notably the central station on Burrington and Leonard. It may take a while because of the complexity of the problem, but we're on top of it now and hope springs eternal.
I'm jazzed about the potential to see meaningful improvements accomplished for the City this year. I sincerely hope that you'll pitch in and help us out as we cannot do it alone. Whatever expertise you may possess, there is a project that can use your help. Our new city website, which is due to launch in January, will enable citizens to have unprecedented access to information on just about everything related to Southport's government. It will also improve our communication with citizens so that getting involved and staying up to date is simple and right at your finger tips.

Here's wishing each and every one of you a Merry Christmas, a happy and prosperous New Year, and a joyous and peaceful holiday season.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Shape of Things to Come

If you're not busy this Thursday evening (Dec. 8), say...around 6:00 PM, I have a suggestion-- if your taste runs toward the absurd.

The Southport Board of Aldermen will convene to swear in 3 new board members and conduct a little business. One particular item on the agenda should bring a smile to your face. It is innocently listed as: consideration of and possible action to Amend Chapter 2, Section 2-26 of the City Code Entitled Administration of Ordinances.

Buddy Barnes, one of the newbies, will introduce this amendment to the city's code, and let's see if you think he thought this up all on his own. The change Alderman Barnes proposes will give the power to appoint board committee members to the mayor. The board has had this authority for the past year, but apparently Barnes feels the mayor should tell him which committee he will serve on.

I respectfully disagree with Alderman Barnes. Be sure to show up and see how the vote goes. It will say a lot about your elected officials.

Ciao - Ken

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Why can't we talk without yelling?

Photo by John Muuss, photographic artist
My Father imparted these words of wisdom to me at a very young age: "Just because you disagree with someone, it doesn't mean you have the right to be an asshole to them." While I haven't always had the patience and willpower to follow his advice, I do understand that discussions among people who disagree need not be a mud-slinging shriek fest..

During my 2 years as an elected official I've had the pleasure of listening to many citizens in the act of expressing their opinion on a number of subjects. This experience has been both enlightening and disheartening. While input from the people I represent is critically important to me and my role as an alderman, the anger associated with it is wearing me down. And it doesn't have to be that way, but my experience tells me that it's always the case regardless of the subject at hand.

Two recent public disagreements provide exquisite examples of the type of discourse that is needlessly nasty. A few months ago the board of aldermen heard a proposal from a group of citizens who want to erect a memorial in tribute to the many Southport folks who've spent their lives working on the water. We have a rich maritime history and the memorial seeks to spotlight the unsung mariners. The group is a mix of natives, longtime residents and relative newbies, but they all have a passion for our local heritage.

The plan was to place the memorial at the present site of the Whittler's Bench at Waterfront Park, but the group primarily wanted to know if their idea was worth pursuing. The board recommended that the group get public opinion on the memorial. The opinions came in at warp speed. Facebook, letters to the editor, and public comments at board meetings were all filled with angry, outraged folks who demanded that the Whittler's Bench be left just the way it is.

OK. Fine. No problem. The folks spearheading this worthwhile project just wanted to get some public feedback. Replacing the bench was just a suggestion. The Whittler's Bench is rich with history and lives in the memories of those who grew up in Southport, so let's just leave it where it is. Was the anger, name-calling, and vilification of those who haven't lived in Southport more than 40 years really necessary in order to deliver that message?

The Board of Aldermen have been trying to move the Southport Visitor's Center to the Garrison House ever since the property was acquired from the federal government in 2004. My first action as an alderman reversed that resolution, then I spent almost 2 years trying to see if there was a viable alternative for the use of the Garrison House. After much discussion, deliberation and hard work, the Ft. Johnston Committee decided that moving the visitor's center was the best option. I am on the Ft. Johnston Committee and I agree 100% with our recommendation.

Almost immediately after the board vote to accept the recommendation, visitor center volunteers began to quit and the usual social media and other public means of expression cried foul. Only a lower form of life--or someone who has no regard for the history of Southport--would even suggest moving the visitor's center. They are horrible human beings who deserve nothing less than our complete disgust and scorn.

So...why is moving the visitor's center such a monumental event? Is this really an issue that demands rallying the masses and taking to the streets with pitchforks and torches? Isn't there a way to discuss this without tearing each other's throats out and screaming at the top of our vocal range?

I wish I could confess that I'm exaggerating about the public reactions to these relatively insignificant events. Ok, maybe a bit. (NOTE: the Whittler's Bench event is insignificant because its life was never in jeopardy. The reason for keeping it is significant.). The anger and contentiousness was palpable in our community, and folks were labeled as Southport sludge when they did not deserve it.

Both situations have relatively happy endings. The memorial group is exploring a number of locations that are not the Whittler's Bench, and our new Tourism & Economic Development Director is working with the remaining volunteers, the Southport Historical Society and others to create a wonderful 1st stop for our visitors in the Garrison House.

I suppose it's possible to calm down, get information on whatever is making you upset, then discuss your concerns with those in a position to make the final decision about your complaint. But that's not the way of public discourse in our country these days, so why should I expect it to be otherwise in Southport?

Maybe because we're all better than that.