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Originally published: 2013-09-17 20:47:26
Last modified: 2013-09-17 20:48:10

Local boards unhappy with retreats

by Anna Oakes

Local elected officials want to revamp the five-year-old intergovernmental retreat format, and area leaders think sales tax distribution should be the next retreat topic, the Boone Town Council was told Tuesday.

Phil Trew, director of planning and development for the High Country Council of Governments, appeared before the council at its regular meeting Tuesday to ask if the council would appoint two members to a committee to develop a better process for future retreats.

 "Through you all and directly from elected officials, I have learned of dissatisfaction with the retreats," Trew said in an Aug. 29 letter to county and town managers. "The complaints focus on the fact that the retreats have not focused on issues of significance and have not resulted in achievements."

The High Country Council has facilitated the intergovernmental retreats between staff and elected officials of Watauga County, Appalachian State University and the towns of Boone, Blowing Rock, Beech Mountain and Seven Devils since 2008. Nine retreats have been held, focusing on such topics as transportation, tourism, health care, long-range planning and coordinated dispatch.

"They're typically just informational, and there's no open discussion," Trew said at the council meeting Tuesday.

The High Country Council proposes that two members of each local board meet as a committee with a professional facilitator to discuss potential changes to the retreat process, including the goals of intergovernmental retreats, which topics are relevant at future retreats and what process should be followed at future retreats to ensure that goals are met.

Trew's letter also suggested that the committee discuss "the specific issues surrounding sales tax distribution that should be addressed at a future retreat."

In April, the Watauga County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to change the sales tax distribution method, which resulted in more revenue for the county and towns of Seven Devils, Blowing Rock and Beech Mountain, but an approximate $1.8 million loss in annual revenue for Boone.

The action was a response to the Boone Town Council's newly adopted multi-family standards. The council said the standards would create more housing stock for the work force, but the county said they would jeopardize the sale of the former Watauga High School property.

The county's vote came after weeks of back-and-forth between the two boards, with the town seeking a private mediation and the county insisting the meeting be held in open session.

Trew said elected officials from "two of the towns and the county" recently approached him and said they wanted to discuss the sales tax issue at a future retreat.

"The majority of the local governments involved want to discuss that," he said. But he said he and local managers decided it would not be productive in the current format given the recent changes and the potential for legal action.

"I'm just concerned about the tax thing and how did that come about," Boone Mayor Loretta Clawson said. "I have heard that there are plans out there that I'm not for sure that I support."

Trew said that the county commissioners had appointed Nathan Miller and Billy Kennedy to serve on the committee, while Beech Mountain had appointed Rick Miller and Rick Owen. Other towns elected to wait until after the November elections, he said.

The Boone Town Council agreed to appoint members to the committee in December.

"I think this is the right road," Councilman Rennie Brantz said. "Perhaps this is a way of getting us back on track."

"There are a number of issues that I think we need to be working on jointly - (that) we can't do in isolation," Councilwoman Lynne Mason said.