Report shows benefits for Waynesville, Junaluska merger

By Mary Ann Enloe | Feb 25, 2013

A consultant's report just released by Waynesville's governing board concludes that consolidation of Lake Junaluska Assembly and Waynesville would benefit and is in the best long term interest of both parties.

Martin-McGill's assessment findings report for the Town of Waynesville/Lake Junaluska Assembly Public Works/Utilities Consolidation was presented by Jessica Martin at the town board's annual retreat Friday. The second of two public input sessions on the proposed merger was also held.

Lake Junaluska officials approached Waynesville almost a year ago about the possibility of consolidating the 100-year-old religious retreat with Waynesville. Of the three speakers Friday, one lives at Lake Junaluska and one is a Junaluska property owner who lives in Waynesville, and both favor merger.

The third is a new county resident from Ohio who does not live within city limits but buys city water. To her question concerning an increase in water rates, Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown replied that infrequent increases in water/sewer rates are a natural progression because water/sewer systems must be maintained.

The report's purpose is to provide the Town of Waynesville (TOW) and Lake Junaluska Assembly (LJA) with an objective analysis of the impact of Waynesville's assuming LJA's public works and utilities functions.

Merging of property

Some things were not in the scope of the project, such as sidewalks and walking paths within LJA tax-exempt properties; the lake, dam and bridge across the dam; and the lake's recreational amenities and LJA common areas: the pool, golf course, walking trails, playground, outdoor gym, rose garden, monuments and memorial structures. LJA will retain control of those.

LJA owns $30 million in tax-exempt properties. The Assembly would retain ownership of those properties and remit to Waynesville a payment in lieu of taxes on those parcels. That payment amount was not disclosed in the presentation. The remaining parcels are taxable, worth some $190 million and would generate $775,291 a year in ad valorem property tax revenue for Waynesville.

Water services

LJA owns about 15 miles of water lines and 15 miles of sewer lines. Martin-McGill projected an expense of $3.36 million to upgrade the system. "If I wanted to buy that system, how much would I have to pay for it?" Brown asked. "What I'm getting at is that it would cost $50 million, maybe as much as $100 million to buy it. In actuality, this is a good deal," he continued, speaking of the upgrade costs.

Some 16 miles of streets encircle the lake and curl up the surrounding hills. Only nine miles are currently eligible for Powell Bill funds — monies derived from state gasoline sales tax and remitted to municipalities for restricted use on streets, sidewalks and certain street-maintenance equipment.  As for the projected $3.6 million needed to bring all 16 miles up to state standards, Waynesville Town Manager Marcy Onieal said such an upgrade wasn't feasible. "A $1 million investment would result in only $3,500 in Powell Bill funds," she said. "And some of the streets cannot be widened to meet state standards, even with adequate funding."

Waynesville's financial model for a possibile merger with LJA includes $100,000 annually for street improvements. LJA streets would be placed on a composite list that Waynesville maintains for street repair schedules. A map is on display at Town Hall denoting which entity would retain responsibility for which streets.

All towns talk trash

In a consolidation of LJA/TOW, Waynesville would take possession of LJA's smaller truck which can navigate the community's narrow streets.  Martin.McGill's study showed that LJA residents will see a decrease in solid waste expense. In municipalities, garbage collection is a service covered by ad valorem property taxes. LJA residents now pay for trash pickup. Tax-exempt properties will be billed for solid waste expenses in the same way that businesses are billed. The 12 LJA public works employees would become Waynesville employees.

Emergency services

Waynesville's fire department has been handling Lake Junaluska calls for 50 years, said Fire Chief Joey Webb, Sr. LJA residents pay Waynesville for the service. In a merger, fire protection is included in its property tax structure, as is police protection. The Waynesville Police Department would establish a fourth manned zone just for Lake Junaluska and that cost would be absorbed by ad valorem property taxes.

The mayor pointed out that Waynesville's property taxes are lower now than when he went on the town board 13 years ago. "Compared to most towns, our taxes are low," said Brown. Lake Junaluska sent surveys 10 days ago to its property owners. After tallying, results will be presented to the Lake Junaluska Assembly Board of Directors March 7. The LJA Board makes the final decision.

In the meantime, LJA and Waynesville are working together to craft a bill to meet the N. C. General Assembly bill drafting department's cut-off date of March 3 in the event Lake Junaluska does decide it wants to merge with Waynesville. As the two-hour session concluded, Brown continued his year-long marriage analogy: "I guess we should be looking for a wedding chapel." LJA executive director Dr. Jack Ewing's response was met with laughter: "We happen to have one."