Candidate interview: Tom Ellicson Carolina Beach mayoral candidate [Free read]Candidate Interview:…

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CAROLINA BEACH — The Town of Carolina Beach has several candidates running for multiple positions including Mayor as well as Town Councilmembers.

Port City Daily has emailed all of the candidates a list of the same questions and will be publishing their answers throughout the week. Answers are unedited except for formatting.

There are four candidates running for mayor — a position that will be vacated by Joe Benson who is not running for reelection.

There are two spots on Town Council up for grabs with five candidates.

Why do you want to be mayor/town council member?

I am running to be the next mayor of Carolina Beach because I believe we need a change in leadership and I believe I have the right experience to make a difference.

I have experience in local government, having served as a City Council Member in Hudson, Ohio. During my time on council, we worked hard to address storm water and flooding issues, we oversaw large infrastructure projects, and we resolved serious financial issues.

I have also served as co-chair of the Carolina Beach Operations Advisory Committee and was a lead author on the committee’s storm water and flooding report.

These experiences have taught me the importance of infrastructure projects and I have seen firsthand how people can suffer from poor roads and flooding when the infrastructure does not keep up. I understand the importance of oversight that elected officials must provide to ensure that public projects get completed successfully the first time.

I have experience with municipal budgets and understand the importance of not only proper budgeting but of following through by keeping an eye on the spending after budgets are passed.

Professionally, I am an engineer with 30 years’ experience and I am responsible for managing large, complex projects. I have extensive experience managing budgets and providing oversight to make sure that things get done right the first time, on schedule, and on budget.

I believe that my background providing oversight on large projects, experience with storm water and flooding issues, and experience with municipal budgets is the type of experience that our next mayor of Carolina Beach should have.

What are you priorities for Carolina Beach, what do you think needs to be addressed and what do you think the town currently does well?

Our town excels at maintaining great beaches with easy beach access and we have attracted great residents who are generous and giving of their time. But there is room for improvement, particularly in the following three areas: infrastructure, finances, and growth management.

INFRASTRUCTURE

We must see the lake dredging through to the end. We must address nuisance flooding of residential properties on the north end caused by lunar tides. We must address water quality issues.

When it comes to infrastructure, we cannot afford to repeat the mistakes of the past. We must make changes to ensure that the right processes and procedures are in place so we can successfully complete the large infrastructure projects that we will be facing. I have experience providing proper oversight of public and private projects and will work with the Town Manager to make sure we implement best practices for project management.

FINANCES

We must reform the budgeting and spending processes. From 2014 to 2018, spending increased at a rate 4 times higher than revenue growth. This spending has drained our reserve fund and caught the eye of the North Carolina State Treasurer’s office.

In November, 2018 the State Treasurer’s office wrote to our town manager saying that they had “areas of concern regarding your financial position.” And that, “We are concerned that the fund balance . . . may be too low to provide the necessary resources you need.”

Source: Independent Auditor’s Reports of Carolina Beach Financial Statements

The long-term spending trends and depletion of the reserve fund should have been apparent to anyone looking at the budget. But Council was not proactive and now the state auditors are taking note. This is just another reason why we have to stop business as usual and why we cannot accept the status quo. It is time for a change.

I have experience balancing municipal budgets and I have experience managing corporate budgets. I will bring that experience to Carolina Beach and work with Council and the Town Manager to implement best practices for budgeting and money management.

MANAGING GROWTH

Carolina Beach is growing and we must grow with it. But we have to recognize that the quality of life we have on the island is built on our town’s long history, the natural beauty of our surroundings, and the generosity of our residence. We cannot move forward by forgetting the past or by forgetting what has attracted us here in the first place. To move forward, I believe we have to address issues related to development, parking, and short-term rentals.

As we grow, we must not allow expanded commercial and high density rental development to destroy the residential communities and residential quality of life. Additionally, as development continues to occur in the Central Business District, we must not allow our town to be walled off from the boardwalk by high and medium rise buildings.

Right now, even from several blocks back from the beach, we get to enjoy the ocean breeze, sounds of the surf, and the vista above the dunes. The coastal views are important to our quality of life. This will be adversely affected if we allow development to wall us off from the sea scape. We must make sure the Land Use Plan and zoning ordinances are in alignment with our desire to preserve our enjoyment of the coastal aesthetics.

With regard to parking, right now we have a chance to be proactive and address our parking needs over the next 5 to 10 years. We must not kick the can down the road on parking. I have proposed the formation of an Ad-Hoc committee to investigate parking solutions and report those to Council.

Short-term rentals are an area on concern for residents. According to the draft Land Use Plan, during our peak season we have about 10,000 overnight visitors. But, only about 2,500 of those stay in full services hotels and motels. Most of the rest are in short-term rentals. As a beach town, we do rely heavily on short-term rentals and we cannot simply ban them or regulate them out of existence.

All North Carolina beach communities rely on short-term rentals. In Carolina Beach, about 38% of all our housing is seasonal housing. That is far lower than other beach communities which typically have more than 50% of total housing dedicated to seasonal rentals.

One thing that sets Carolina Beach apart from other beach towns is our large number of year round residents and quiet residential neighborhoods. That is a major reason why I moved here with my family.

We have to take steps to preserve the residential neighborhoods but still allow short-term rentals. It is all about maintaining a balance. I believe a simple registration and permitting process is a critical component to maintaining that balance. We also need to review our regulations regarding short-term rentals in the low density, “R3” zoned neighborhoods.

How would you like to see the issues at Freeman Park solved? (Erosion, overcrowding, land disputes with private owners)

Freeman Park is a significant attraction to visitors and adds to the quality of life for many local residents. The area is also ecologically sensitive. We must continue to work to balance beach access with ecological protection.

However, our enjoyment of Freeman Park is being threatened by Mother Nature as well as by private landowners. The Town of Carolina Beach is actively engaged in lawsuits with landowners regarding private property rights vs. public trust rights. Additionally, the Town of Carolina Beach and the Freeman Park Committee are actively looking for long term solutions to issues related to erosion, but there are no easy solutions. So, even as we work to maintain public access to the beach, we must be prepared for a future where our access is limited.

The current budget projects Freeman Park revenues of about $1.9 million. However, due to beach closures caused by erosion, that projected dollar amount is likely to be reduced. To properly prepare for the impact of the revenue reduction we need to do a better job at tracking our spending. That includes identifying which revenues sources are used for which projects. This is important for two reasons. First, we need to know what projects will be in jeopardy if a funding source goes away or is significantly reduced. Second, earmarking revenue sources to pay for specific projects will help us prioritize spending which will help us with spending discipline.

With regard to Freeman Park revenue, we need to ensure that revenue we collect from Freeman Park goes first toward preserving and operating Freeman Park. Any additional revenue should then be appropriated to fund projects related to the roads used for Freeman Park access. Canal Drive and Carolina Beach Avenue North are heavily impacted by the high volume of park visitors traveling on those roads.

Parking rates and other costs like passes to the park have steadily risen to account for increased spending by the town, do you think it is fair to pass these costs to visitors that the town relies on to survive instead of raising taxes for residents? Would you like to see parking fees decreased?

In the current budget, parking revenue is projected to be $1.7 million and revenue from Freeman Park is projected to be $1.9 million. Those two revenue sources make up more than 20% of the entire budgeted general fund revenue. But, it is difficult to say what that revenue is used for. A key part of the budget reform that I am proposing is the ability to better track our spending. This includes identifying which revenue sources are used to pay for which projects and having monthly reports to Council of the running spend rate.

Our audited financial statements show that from June 2014 to June 2018 spending increased at a rate 4 times higher than revenue growth. I believe we should not be raising any fees or taxes until we get our spending under control.

I have experience balancing municipal budgets and I have experience managing corporate budgets. I will bring that experience to Carolina Beach and work with Council and the Town Manager to implement best practices for budgeting and money management.

Speaking of parking, what are your plans to help solve parking woes? Would you consider a parking deck a viable option?

We simply do not have enough town-owned parking places. Limiting parking time to 2 hours, increasing parking fees, and painting tiny white boxes around parking spaces do nothing to address the fundamental issue. Those measures only restrict parking and are a nuisance to local residents.

Parking this year during the peak season was marginal and that was only because of the large number of private parking lots that opened. But what happens when those properties are developed? The private parking can go away overnight. Right now we have a chance to be proactive and look ahead to our parking needs over the next 5 to 10 years.

So, as I proposed during my WHQR radio interview, as your next mayor I would form an ad-hoc committee to look for parking solutions. Ad-hoc committees work best if they have a well-defined deadline and a well-defined objective. I am proposing a 120 day time line for the committee to come up with detailed projections for parking needs over the next 10 years and to provide 3 specific proposals to meet those parking needs. One of those proposals could involve a parking deck.

It is important to keep an open mind when looking for solutions. So, at this point I would not rule anything out.

With the firing of two town managers in a year, what qualities would you look for in a new manager? How could these issues be avoided in the future?

Unfortunately, we are not learning from our past mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes, so it is important to apply lessons learned to improve performance going forward. But that’s not what is happening in Carolina Beach. Members of council are not experts at hiring so it would have been wise to take the interim town manager’s advice and hire a human resource expert to help with the town manger search. Instead, Council chose to do what they always do – take care of the search on their own – and there is a risk of making the wrong hiring decision once again.

To avoid firing a 3rd town manager, we must look for a person with coastal experience, with experience as a town manager, and with a successful track record of budget management and completion of large infrastructure projects. Then, we must support the town manager. In particular, the mayor must work closely with the town manager to make sure the town manger gets needed resources to get the job done and to make sure the town manager is aligned with the goals of Council.

How would you balance moving the town forward in terms of economy and new business/condos/homes and maintaining the ‘small town’ vibe of Carolina Beach?

I believe the quality of life we have on the island is built on our town’s long history, the natural beauty of our surroundings, and the generosity of our residence. We cannot move forward by forgetting the past or by forgetting what has attracted us here in the first place.

So, as Carolina Beach grows, we must be proactive in addressing our needs and we must strike a balance that protects what we value. In particular, to move forward I believe we have to address issues related to development, parking, and short-term rentals.

We must not allow commercial development and high density development to encroach into our existing neighborhoods. We must make sure the Land Use Plan and zoning ordinances are in alignment with our desire to preserve our enjoyment of the coastal aesthetics.

We must be proactive on parking and not kick the can down the road. That is why I have proposed the formation of an Ad-Hoc committee to investigate and bring viable parking solutions to Council.

Vibrant residential communities are what sets Carolina Beach apart from other beach towns. However, our community also depends on short-term rentals. So we have to take steps to preserve our residential neighborhoods while still allowing short-term rentals. I believe a simple registration and permitting process for short-term rental properties is a critical component to maintaining that balance. We also need to review our regulations regarding short-term rentals in the low density, “R3” zoned neighborhoods.

Is there anything else you would like people to know about you or your hopes for Carolina Beach?

Carolina Beach is a great place to live and our future is bright. But for this town to reach its full potential, we must change the status quo. We can no longer afford to keep making the same mistakes.

Even though we see our town as laid back and somewhat quirky, our town government cannot be that way. The Carolina Beach town government has to be as modern and efficient as that of any well run larger city.

But that’s not what’s happening:

  • We’ve fired 2 town managers in the last 12 months and 3 in the last 7 years
  • We failed to complete the $2.7 million lake dredging project
  • We have drained our reserve fund so fast over the past 5 years that the State Treasurer’s office wrote a letter of warning to our Town Manager
  • This past spring Council struggled to get a budget out

These are all warning signs and when taken together show that we desperately need to make changes to restore confidence in the town’s ability to manage its affairs.

We need to make a change. We need experienced leadership for our next Mayor, and I have that experience.

I have experience balancing municipal budgets and I have experience managing corporate budgets. I have seen firsthand how people can suffer from poor roads and flooding when the infrastructure does not keep up. I understand the importance of infrastructure and know how to provide proper oversight to ensure projects get done right the first time. As your next mayor, I will bring this perspective and experience to Carolina Beach to implement best practices for budgeting, money management, and project management.

No change can occur without your help. So, please vote to Elect Elicson on November 5! Thank you.


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