Mount Pleasant’s Town Council debated long-term spending priorities this week, and you wouldn’t figure that included snowplows.
Not with the air conditioner running in mid-January.
But as the thermometer hit 75, rumors surfaced that the town — where costs are rising faster than revenue, and the mercury — didn’t need any snowplows.
Because it had just spent big bucks on two of them.
Mayor Will Haynie laughed at the question, because in the past two years he’s repeatedly heard variations on the theme.
He’s been asked why Mount Pleasant built a brand-new Town Hall when serious drainage issues remain unfunded. Or why the town doesn’t cancel Mount Pleasant Way — a $60 million biking and walking trail — and spend that money on, say, roads.
Of course, the answers are complicated. Many people don’t understand that the money for various projects comes from different sources … and often with strings attached.
For instance, it's foolish to spend capital money on recurring expenses. Federal grants are devoted to specific projects. And you can’t take county parks money and dig the town a ditch.
But Haynie understands how it looks.
“People wonder why we talk about raising stormwater fees when they see us using TIF (tax increment financing) money to build boat piers,” Haynie says. “It’s bad optics.”
Yes, and those optics have come into sharper focus in the past year, when town officials predicted operating costs would surpass tax revenue within five years. Which can happen when only houses valued at more than $800,000 generate enough property taxes to pay for the municipal services they receive.
So of course people are talking about the possibility of a tax increase, cuts in services or relaxing limits on growth. You couldn't blame the town for considering any of those options, but Haynie insists they aren't necessary because Mount Pleasant isn’t on the edge of a fiscal cliff.
Instead, he says, town officials are “looking at the horizon.”
Some might consider that a sunny outlook, but he’s right. The town has recognized its impending dilemma far enough in advance to avoid the trouble altogether … and this week's debate about long-term capital projects is a big part of that. The discussions ranged from taking another look at business license fees to identifying new sources of cash to improve drainage.
Haynie says everything is on the table, except maybe the suggestion that the town ask residents to rank priorities in a referendum. “Our duty is to make the hard decisions."
Those decisions are hard enough when priorities don’t shift. But five years ago, no one was talking about flooding … and now it’s the town’s top concern.
Mount Pleasant may need to shift gears to address new concerns. And you could argue that property taxes are artificially low, since many residents don’t pay enough to cover their services.
But this new Town Council — half of which was elected in November — has made it clear that’s not an option. So Mount Pleasant residents, who are never shy with their opinions, need to appreciate that fiscal restraint and be reasonable if other hard choices crop up.
That means they shouldn’t rebel if council has to raise stormwater fees … or the cost for recreation programs.
There's been rampant speculation the council will cut rec programs to balance the budget. That’s probably not going to happen, but folks should recognize those programs, however popular, are subsidized by the town to the tune of $5 million per annum. In the future, residents may have to pony up more to play.
That’s not unreasonable ... especially if it prevents the town’s budget from going into the red. Which Haynie insists is never going to happen because Mount Pleasant is making smart plans for the future.
And that's where those snowplows come in. The town did, in fact, recently buy two snowplow attachments — at $9,000 each — for its newest public works trucks. Which are admittedly pricey, but get used year-round for various tasks.
Seeing as how the town’s streets were shut down for nearly five days during a winter storm two years ago, that makes sense. It even sums up Mount Pleasant’s outlook.
It may be sunny today, but plan for rising tides, rain … and even a little snow.