MATTHEWS – It’s time to get down to business now that the Matthews Board of Commissioners is up to speed on Matthews’ history and has found common ground for the future of the town.
The board returned from its annual planning conference in Ocean Isle on Sunday, March 2, after days of in-depth discussions on where the town has been, what still needs to be accomplished and what direction the town should go in the future, Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor said. Leaders may have been at the beach, but the conference was not a vacation, Taylor added, as town leaders worked to create a cohesive board, with leaders new and old working together for the common good.
“We spent an awful lot of time getting (new members) up to speed to where we are and how we got here – much more than any other planning conference that I’ve ever been involved in,” Taylor, who was first elected mayor in 2009 and prior to that served five terms on the board, said.
Four new members were elected to the board in late 2013, including Mayor Pro Tem Joe Pata and commissioners John Higdon, Chris Melton and John Ross, joining Taylor and incumbent commissioners Jeff Miller and Kress Query. It’s the first time in more than 20 years the board has seen such a large turnover, Taylor said. That’s what made this planning conference so different from years passed. While Taylor said no new ideas necessarily flourished out of this year’s conference, leaders did come to some consensus on existing plans for the town, such as the push to move forward with the South Trade Street project.
Last year’s board of commissioners approved a modified version of a plan to widen South Trade Street in June 2013. Since, town staff has been working with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, who owns the road, to iron out details and make modifications. The town also is still working to acquire right-of-ways along the congested stretch just north of Matthews United Methodist Church to just past the Matthews Athletic and Recreation Association.
But the already-approved project only fixes some of the problem. Commissioners plan to put more pressure on NCDOT this year to help fund widening the road along the culvert at Four Mile Creek. Matthews already is dishing out more than $5 million for Phase I of the project and hopes state officials will put out the more than $2 million needed to finish the project off.
“I think everyone on the board is eager to move forward with that project and do everything we can do to make that project happen,” Taylor said.
Commissioners also named expansion of the town’s greenway and parks and recreation department as a top priority at the meeting, Taylor said, in addition to working to increase connectivity of the entire town.
But any project the town takes on always comes with a cost, Taylor reminded – that’s why the idea to keep the tax rate low is always on leaders’ minds when it comes to planning, he said. Commissioners voted last year to raise the tax rate, which now stands at $0.3175 per $100 valuation, according to the town manager Hazen Blodgett. Blodgett said town staff will review tax-related information on the town website to ensure correct information is listed after some discrepancy was found.
The tax rate was last lowered three years ago by about 3 cents, Blodgett said. Mecklenburg County Commissioners voted to increase the county tax rate last year but are considering lowering the rate this summer.
Matthews leaders new and old are looking to keep a low tax rate, Taylor and Commissioner Melton both said.
“What we try to look at is what is the total burden to the citizens. We look at sales tax revenue and property taxes coming in. If a reduction is warranted, we would look at that,” Taylor said. “I don’t see that happening. The reason is that we’ve cut services for a number of years.”
But cutbacks can eventually catch up to you, Taylor added. With rising health care costs and prices for utilities and gas on the rise, those added costs become harder and harder to absorb in the already tight budget.
“I think what Matthews has done over the years is try to find those cuts. We put things off that we can put off. At some point, we’re going to have to make-up all those cuts.”
Budget season won’t officially start for a few more weeks, but in the meantime, commissioners have discussed the town’s fund balance, Melton said, and have identified goals they’d like to see accomplished this year. Next, they’ll discuss how to accomplish those goals as they continue to iron out details of their strategic framework.
“When I was campaigning, everyone always asked ‘Are you going to raise taxes?’ You don’t know (at that time) because you’re not privy to that information,” Melton said. “I want to keep taxes low – let’s do what we need to do within the budget.”