Williamston approves 2022-23 budget, property purchases and rezoning of properties

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During their meeting Monday, Williamston Town Council approved two significant property purchases by the town, second reading on the 2022-23 budget and rezoning of 116 properties.
Mayor Rockey Burgess said after lengthy discussions with town department heads, they were able to come up with a balanced budget with no tax millage increase. The draft budget initially had a $187,000 deficit.
Burgess said the approximately $4 million budget allows the town to “operate within our means.”
The budget remains at the current millage rate of 112.5 mills.

The budget includes up to a four percent salary increase for some town employees. According to Mayor Burgess, raises will be generally two percent with up to an additional two percent being merit based and at the mayor’s discretion.
It includes some capital improvements including a radio repeater for the Fire Department on the Virginia Drive water tower and some improvements at the Police Department, such as flooring and paint. Police Department upgrades will be dependent on the sale of some older police vehicles, the mayor said.

Councilman Lee Cole thanked the mayor and town staff for their work on the budget. “With inflation and rising labor costs, this is an extremely tight budget that keeps services and improves services. He said the budget leverages grant money, and with the growth the town is experiencing, not raises property taxes.

Cole also added that the town is not raising water rates, even though Anderson Regional Joint Water System (ARJWS), which supplies the town’s water, recently approved a 4.32 percent rate increase. Mayor Burgess said the town has absorbed an 18 percent increase in rates by ARJWS over the last several years.

“This budget will move the town forward,” Burgess said. “It is a very conservative budget. We went through it line item by line item to get a balanced budget and cut expenses that would have created a $187,000 deficit. It reflects our true needs.”
Council unanimously approved the new budget.

Council also approved second reading to rezone a 116 properties. Town Attorney Rame Campbell said the rezoning is being done at the recommendation of the town planning commission to plan for future growth for the town. He said it changes zoning for a number of properties from multi family to single family housing. Zoning changes on Market and Brown Street are from MFR to R-7, a new classification the town approved last year to allow for larger lots of 7000 square feet (See separate story). Campbell said the change on the zoning map shows “how to grow the town.”
One property owner from Simpsonville, who owns several lots in the area, asked for clarification on what the zoning change means.
Campbell said nearby property owners were notified of the changes.

Council approved first reading on a contract rate for Jacob Utilities, which provides sewer service and billing for residents of Forest Hills Subdivision, located just outside of the town limits.
Mayor Burgess said with the recent transfer of 300,000 gallons of sewer capacity at the town’s waste water treatment plant, from Anderson County back to the Town of Williamston, Jacob Utilities is now a customer of the town. The system services approximately 30 customers and feeds through one tap to the town’s treatment facility. Council approved a rate of $9 per 1000 gallons treated. Jacob Utilities averages 140,000 to 150,000 gallons per month.

Under the agreement, the town will be notified of meter readings and will have access to verify readings. The rate agreement must go before the Public Service Commission for approval for Jacob Utilities to set their final customer rate, the mayor said.

Council approved renewal of the Duke Energy Franchise Fee of 4.5 percent. The franchise fee is based on the gross electricity receipts within the town and helps pay for public street lighting. Mayor Burgess said the town could increase the fee to five percent. “We feel comfortable to continue providing that service at 4.5 percent,” he said.

Council approved a 2022 Election Ordinance for two council seats. The election will be held along with the general midterm election on Nov. 8. The Council Ward One seat, currently held by Tony Hagood, and Council Ward Two seat, currently held by Lee Cole, will be open.
Council approved an increase in the water tap fees for the town. A 3/4 inch tap will increase from $1,300 to $1,800 and a one inch tap will increase from $1,400 to $1,900. A two inch line tap will be determined on a case by case basis. Mayor Burgess said the increase is still considerably below what other municipalities charge. “We want that growth,” he said. “Our low taxes are one reason we see that growth.” The $500 tap fee increase will only be on new construction.

Council gave consent to two considerable property purchases by the town.
Mayor Burgess explained that he has a “handshake deal” with the owner of property at 610 Greenville Drive and asked council to approve a resolution authorizing him to proceed with the property purchase “for economic development purposes”.
Burgess said that the property, which he described as an “eyesore”, was grandfathered in at a time when the town did not have the restrictions it now has. He said the town plans to purchase the three lots, raze the area and provide greenspace, other municipal services or possibly market the property.
“This is a step in the right direction,” he said. “It (that part of town) which is the African American community, has been neglected. It is a prime opportunity.” However he said, “It is not a bargain.” Burgess said the town is paying $325,000 for the property which has appraised market value by the county at approximately $324,000.
Burgess told Council, “It will be the start of revitalization in that area of town. It is a lot of money, sometimes you have to do the right thing.”

Councilman Tony Hagood, who represents Ward One in which the property is located, agreed it has been an eyesore and made the motion to approve the resolution. He thanked the mayor and other council members for voting to move forward with the resolution.

Councilman Cole stated that it is the nature of the business currently located there, that it will never be pretty. “It is a gateway into our town,” he said. “That corridor can be beautiful, a template for the rest of the town. It is in our interest to put our best foot forward for people coming into the town.” He mentioned the very healthy fund balance the town has and said he was very supportive of the move.

Council unanimously approved the property purchase at 610 Greenville Drive. During the discussion prior to the vote, Mayor Burgess acknowledged that former Mayor Mack Durham had been instrumental in previous zoning and planning for the town. “We owe thanks to former Mayor Mack Durham. He took the time and worked with the planning commission on the zoning map. All of these things are planned development.”

Funding for the property purchase will be from the general fund, which has been boosted with American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding of $2.1 million. Burgess said the funding was first designated for broadband and infrastructure, but now can be spent on a variety of items. Since the ARPA funds are not restricted, they will be placed into the General Fund Balance the mayor said.

The ARPA funding is Williamston’s share of a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill (ARPA) passed by congress in 2021. The Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund in ARPA provides $350 billion for states, municipalities, counties, tribes, and territories, including $130.2 billion for local governments split evenly between municipalities and counties.
Mayor Burgess said that a portion of the funds will be used to upgrade infrastructure in the Mill Village which is from the 1930s and 40s. The mayor said there are old galvanized pipes, homes on top of lines and other problems.

He said the town plans to use $1.5 million from the ARPA funds for the Mill Village project. “This council said the problem has been put off, we have kicked the can for too long. We have to address it.” Burgess said the funding is being leveraged as mush as possible with other grants.

According to the mayor, the town also has a Rural Infrastructure Authority (RIA) grant of $444,000 which will cover a good portion of the Mill Village upgrade. The town has also applied for a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) of $700,000 to help with the project.
“We want to focus on what is important to this town and do it for the right reasons,” the mayor said.

Council also gave their consent to allow the mayor to purchase two parcels of property, located at 3 Minor Street and 9 College Street, for “economic development” purposes. Burgess said the town will pay fair market value of $40,000 for the lots. The resolution was approved 4-0. Councilman Lee Cole recused himself due to a conflict of interest. There was no mention of plans for the property other than the mayor stating, “It is worth that to the Town of Williamston.”

Council then went into executive session to discuss a “personnel matter and a contractural matter.”

During the meeting, Envision Williamston Executive Director Roberta Hamby presented information on a number of projects the organization is currently involved in. Among those are replacement banners for Main Street, more “Hometown Hero” military banners, a “Junk in the Trunk” community yard sale, food truck day in the park, adopt a shelter project and a memorial brick sale. Envision Williamston is also planning to hold the “Bobbers on Big Creek” event and sponsor games as part of the Town’s upcoming Freedom Celebration. Two big ticket items the organization is looking at are a fenced dog park and a splash pad in the park, Hamby said.