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Councilmen at odds over flowerbeds

By MELINDA WILLIAMS

melinda@southwesttimes.com

Pulaski Councilman Greg East believes paying $36,000 to have nine town flowerbeds professionally landscaped in the town’s branding colors is a feather in the town’s cap when it comes to attracting investors.

Councilman Joseph Goodman disagrees and says he’s not comfortable spending that much on flowers and plants. He thinks East is putting too much value on the importance of flowerbeds to investors.

“They’re not at all concerned about the flowerbeds, they’re concerned about what the town is doing to address blight, affordability of the property they’re buying, how much they’re going to have to invest in it, and how much they’re going to make. Investors are looking to make money,” Goodman said of discussions he’s had with local investors.

Council has had several discussions about redoing the town’s 33 flowerbeds with perennial plants that complement the colors in its new branding scheme. If they’re going to proceed with having beds professionally landscaped, a decision has to be made by February so the plants can be ordered in time for delivery by spring.

According to Town Manager Shawn Utt, the town already has $18,000 remaining in the current fiscal year beautification budget. However, it will cost about $4,000 each for the nine most prominent beds to be landscaped.

Utt said landscaping is an eligible expense for Virginia Department of Transportation funds. The gap in funding flowerbed landscaping could be filled with funds from the approximately $500,000 set aside for street paving, but that would mean $15,000-$16,000 less paving.

Alternatively, Utt believes there may be enough savings in the staffing budget to pull funds from there. “Even though I think we’ve done some hiring, we will see some savings in staff costs that we budgeted for and won’t be spending. We can pull from that instead of paving,” he said.

Goodman said he’s not comfortable taking any money from paving to landscape the flowerbeds.

“We’ve got a lot of paving that needs to be done in this town. I think taking anything away from that just hurts us,” he said. “If I were an investor I’d like to see more money put into paving and maintenance.”

Goodman would rather see the landscaping phased in over time or find an alternative to professional landscaping. He noted council has made a lot of drastic cuts in the town budget that has impacted staff and other programs. “We’re spending a lot of money on plants and flowers when we have a lot of other things we need to work on.”

Under the landscaping plan, Utt said, perennial flowers will replace 95 percent of the annuals the town has been purchasing every year at a cost of about $10,000. Since perennials come back, he says there will be a reduction in annual plant purchases and the cost of having them planted, plus maintenance costs.

East agreed with Goodman that council has made budget cuts and taken measures to achieve other savings, including saving $180,000 annually by turning over management of Gatewood Park to a private company.

However, East says large investors in the town have commented to him that first impressions are critical to investors and potential homeowners and the entrance to town on Route 99 and Route 11 need attention.

“It’s all about first impressions, which is why I think this council continues to bring up the VW buses and will continue to do so until they’re no longer there,” East said. “While the money we’re talking about is nothing to sneeze at, the benefit landscaping would make in the appearances would far exceed the return on that investment. I think we should move forward.”

He agreed flowerbeds alone are not going to attract investors. However, he thinks having them professionally landscaped takes the town one step closer to its goal of attracting more investment.

East said the flowerbeds project “goes back more years than I like to admit. It’s been a long process. Initially, we did nothing or very little. Then we moved forward three to four years with a horticulturist and there was terrific improvement,” he said, commending town staff for those efforts.

“I think our goal now is to take it to the next level. We’re talking about town beautification, so how many years does it take to get the flowerbeds out of the way — to just do it and do it right? He suggested council will be talking about it next year and the year after that if they drag it out any further.

“Ultimately, we’re talking about a budget reduction,” East added.

Utt said that while there won’t really be any money savings since the funds will be shifted from a different budget line item, more paving will result in the savings in flowerbed costs.

He pointed out all VDOT funds left over at the end of a fiscal year, whether allocated to staff, paving or beautification, must be spent or returned to VDOT, so any savings would be shifted to paving projects.

Councilman Jamie Radcliffe thinks the town is somewhat getting the cart before the horse.

“The town keeps talking about the beautification it wants to do, but the first step is to get the staff to do it. You can’t build a house without a foundation. We can talk about it all we want to — and we do it every year —but we neglect to put the boots on the ground,” Radcliffe said. He says staff tries to accomplish projects, “but they can only be spread so far. That’s the first thing we really need to do before we keep moving this train down the track.”

Utt said the town has made some good “hires” recently.

East said having the beds professionally landscaped is one way to limit the amount of staff involvement and reduce their workload.

Saying his mother is the “avid gardener” at his home, Goodman questioned the maintenance savings that will come from the proposal.

“Rarely do you see where you change out the garden and have less work to do. You may shift it to stuff you don’t have to maintain the same, but you’re still going to have to have someone out there … removing weeds, so on and so forth,” he said.

Goodman said he’s not convinced the town will really see $10,000 worth of savings annually that can be shifted to paving projects. “All I’m asking is a proof of concept,” he said.

He pointed out that there can still be an issue with perennials dying in-season or failing to come back the next year.

“My concern is we’re going in full barrel without any real knowledge for sure where we’re going. I love the idea of putting money back into paving. I’d like to see all of it go back into paving, but that’s not the reality,” he said.

East said he doesn’t think anyone wants to see money taken out of paving to fund the project.

Regardless what’s done, Councilman Tyler Clontz said the town has to move away from spending $10,000 on plants every year.

Goodman said he would like to see the town use the $18,000 already budgeted to plant perennials in the most prominent flowerbeds this spring as a test to see how much it will save the town in planting and maintenance costs.

“If it’s as good as everyone at this table believes it’s going to be, then finish them. You can do four with what you have budgeted,” he said.

“I personally don’t agree with trying to sneak up on this. I say we just knock it out,” East said.

Goodman proposed Utt see what funding he can reallocate from staff funds that won’t be spent. That can then be added to funds already budgeted for beautification and landscaping can proceed at that level of funding.

Utt will present a report to council at its work session Tuesday. That will allow for a vote in time to meet the February ordering deadline.

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