Council candidates speak out at forum

Published 6:29 pm Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Finances, recreation views aired

By Elizabeth Pattman

Staff writer

The big issues brought to Smithfield Town Council candidates at Thursday’s forum were town finances, recreation projects, land use and bringing more young people back to town.

The forum, sponsored by The Smithfield Times, gave town residents the chance to see what the candidates have planned for Smithfield’s future.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Running for the four open council seats are incumbent Mayor Carter Williams, and challengers Valerie Butler, Chris Torre, Beth Haywood, Bill Davidson and Wayne Hall.

Several residents had questions regarding the town’s finances, particularly the upcoming budget and how candidates would balance the number of ongoing and future projects in town.{mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

“It’s always a tough thing to do, making a decision. The monies that we get from taxes and revenue, right now it’s paying for everything we’ve got,” said Williams, who was confident of the town’s financial situation. 

Williams also mentioned that the town is looking at more than $1.2 million in additional revenues following the completion of the Pinewood Heights project in 2019. (See accompanying story)

“We are now getting ready to approve the next and last financial package for Pinewood Heights, which is for $1.2 million. It’s a matching grant from the state for the redevelopment and moving the neighborhood of Pinewood. Once that’s done in the beginning to the middle of 2019, we’ll be in excess of $1.2 million, which is going to help a whole lot, but we have to get there,” he said.

In 2007, the town increased the meals tax in order to generate revenue to fund the Pinewood Heights project. Following its completion, if the meals tax remained at its current rate, the town would see the excess revenue.

Davidson echoed Williams’ confidence, saying that despite several projects going on, the expected revenues that will come after their completion will balance everything out.

“As far as the financial situation, I met with the town treasurer. Most things eventually, once they’re open, will pave their way,” he said. “I don’t think that we’re in a dire situation financially as some people say that we are.”

Torre, however, did not seem to see the town’s current finances in such a positive light.

“Our financial position right at this very moment is not desirable,” he said. Torre cited the town’s debt to income ratio as one of his main concerns for the financial future, but said he believes the town is “on the verge a wonderful economic future.”

Butler also saw some issues with the town’s financial position, particularly when it comes to balancing necessary projects with more desirable ones.

“There are some infrastructure challenges that we’ve been confronted with and decisions are going to have to be made about those,” she said. “I’d like to see the Town Council prioritize those jobs based on those projects that are mandated, those projects that need to be done, and I’m sure there are some fun projects that we’d like to have and it may be some time until that actually comes to fruition.”

The town’s investment in recreational facilities, such as Windsor Castle Park, the Joseph W. Luter Jr. sports complex and the proposed bike and pedestrian trail, also generated questions.

Many candidates said they liked the recreation projects that have already been started in town, but hope that the Town Council will be cautious when it comes to adding on more recreation projects, for financial reasons.

Hall said he saw “nothing but good things” to come from the Joseph W. Luter Jr. sports complex’s construction, but for other projects, such as the bike path, he wished they would be “put on hold until we take care of the needs of the town.”

Williams noted that the large recreation projects, such as the sports complex and Windsor Castle Park, were largely completed on donations, but the upkeep costs fall on the town. He acknowledged residents’ concerns, but said the significant investments made to complete these projects will come back around through revenues.

“Can we afford to run it? Heck no, but we have a parks and recreation director that can do a wonderful job with it and work with the county. The best way to make money on it is to charge for it, of course,” he said.

Torre, on the other hand, was plainly opposed to adding any more recreation projects for the foreseeable future.

“Recreation projects in the future seem an awful lot to me like dessert at dinner. We got to get through the meal, you’ve got to eat your spinach before you can get to the cherry pie. As far as recreation projects go for the foreseeable future, if you want them, don’t vote for me, because I don’t,” he said.

The candidates were also asked to give their views on future land use and the increase in housing developments around town.

Haywood stated that the Town Council needs to ensure that any future growth or development is well planned, so that the town does not become overloaded, both in terms of space and in service impacts.

“I think that we need to make sure we keep managed growth, like a controlled growth, so that we don’t build too many houses and can’t support the water or it’s just too much traffic,” she said. “I think the important part of us deciding all these neighborhoods that come in, is that we can do it in a controlled fashion, so that we have the amount of services that we need to provide.”

Other candidates echoed her thoughts.

“I think we’d better keep in mind that Smithfield is the last best place,” said Torre. 

“This is the shining star of the county. It is the most desirable place to be. If we follow the guidelines in the documents already in place we’re going to be okay,” he said in reference to following the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances when considering future growth.

“I do know that we need to take a careful look at any development we do,” said Hall. “The cost for infrastructure for a development has got to be offset and how is that going to happen?”

Candidates were also asked how they might encourage the return of young people to Smithfield. 

“I think small communities have always had a problem retaining young people because the big city is exciting and the job opportunities are there, that we don’t necessarily have,” said Davidson.

Most candidates alluded to the fact that this lack of job opportunities was holding the town back.

“We are in the situation of being the little guy on the block that brings people into the town and trains them and spends a lot of money on them and they get experience and then all of the sudden they can go next door and get 20 or 25 percent more money,” said Williams about jobs with the town and police force, but leave shortly after. “We have got to get to the point where we can match those payments, although we’re little old Smithfield. We have to match the pace of other localities and keep these people.”

“To bring the young people back, the only thing we can do is offer them the big opportunities such as the shipyard, the Navy yard, things like that and being a safe, well-tuned wonderful little town like Smithfield to live in and commute back and forth to their job,” he said.

Many candidates mentioned Smithfield’s quality of life as what makes the town marketable for young people. 

 “What we should do is show them what we have, which is a beautiful community to live in,” said Hall.

“It’s very challenging to attract young people to the small town atmosphere. We don’t have the job opportunities here but Smithfield is a great place to live if they’re looking for a safe community that’s convenient to the beach and areas with larger companies that pay larger salaries,” echoed Butler.

Haywood said she believes that attracting young families could be the key.

“I think that what we could focus on is young families to attract to this area. Things like affordable housing and safe communities would be a great way to entice them,” she said. “Also the school system is wonderful, so we could make sure our schools aren’t getting overcrowded and that we can provide a safe community. I think people are looking for that hometown, safe community.”

The election will be held May 1 at The Smithfield Center. The deadline for voter registration passed on Monday, but absentee ballots can still be requested until 5 p.m. on April 24.


A town tax surplus?

By Elizabeth Pattman

Staff writer

During the candidate forum, Mayor Carter Williams said the town will have an additional $1.2 million in revenues once the Pinewood Heights project is completed. 

Williams was likely referring to, in part, the money generated by the town’s 6.25 percent meals tax. The tax was originally set at 4 percent, but was increased by 2.25 percent over the past 10 years to cover the costs of the Pinewood project, which seeks to relocate residents from the blighted neighborhood behind the former Smithfield Packing. Once complete, the land where the former neighborhood was located is slated to be used for industrial development. 

Efforts to reach Williams about his comment were unsuccessful. 

The town currently generates $1.7 million a year from the 6.25 percent meals tax, as of 2017, according to Town Treasurer Ellen Minga. The revenue generated from 2.25 percent of the meals tax is used for the Pinewood project, while the rest is put into the general fund, Minga said. In 2017, $550,582 was taken from the meals tax revenue for the Pinewood Heights project and 2018 is following a similar path, she said.

Former council members, to include Harry Dashiell in 2007, and more recently, Andrew Gregory and Milton Cook in 2012, asked about either repealing the additional tax once the project was completed, or at least dialing it back. 

Town Attorney William Riddick had advised that it would take a vote by the Town Council to either repeal or decrease the tax.  

According to the town’s 2017 audit, the meals tax revenue now exceeds personal property tax revenue and is almost level with real estate collections.  {/mprestriction}