“Our mayor owns a retail business. He is very conscientious of customers and their needs. That conscientiousness rubs off on me and the rest of the town’s staff,” said Jim Fatland, Highlands town manager.
“We are all more aware of what is needed to take care of Highlands’ customers. We think about that in all of our activities.”
In an extensive interview last week, Highlands mayor David Wilkes looked back on his first year in office, and also projected areas where the town will concentrate in the coming months.
“I feel like we’ve accomplished quite a bit in one year,” he said. Wilkes listed some of the projects completed during 2010.
• Harris Lake sewer project.
• Pine Street stormwater project.
• A couple of smaller sewer projects on Pine and Chestnut Streets.
• Renovation of Town Hall.
• Completion of the Dog Park.
• The Mirror Lake sewer project.
• Repaving of Pine Street.
• Addition of new paved sidewalks and repaving of others.
• The paving of Holt Circle and Dogwood Lane.
Of these projects, Wilkes said he did not expect so much public interest in the Dog Park. “I have been surprised at the acceptance and use of this park,” Wilkes said. “I would have predicted that this would be the most expensive facility per use we could possibly build, and I was dead wrong. I have been stunned by the use of the Dog Park. It has become a social gathering place for dogs and their owners. People who did not know each other have become good friends.”
Wilkes described a number of projects as ongoing. For example, the town had employed a consulting group to manage its utility pole inventory. During the past year, however, the town dropped the consulting group and brought the process in-house under the direction of Matt Schuler. Pole inventory not only involves knowing how many poles the town owns and where each is located, but also involves knowing what is on each pole and its exact location. Regulations and safety factors dictate the space between power lines, telephone lines, cable lines, etc. Each of the sources pays rent to the town for use of the poles. Should a new entity wish to utilize the town’s poles, the Town of Highlands must know which poles can be used and the location of those poles.
Installation of radio read electric meters is 90 percent complete, and work on the water meters has already begun.
Highlands established two new working committees in 2010, explained Wilkes. The Sustainability Committee comes under the direction of Commissioner Amy Patterson. The new Business Advisory Committee comes under the direction of the mayor and the town manager.
“We received a Small Town Main Street designation in September. That program is going to be a big boost to Highlands. Those people can get more done in one hour than any organization I have ever dealt with,” Wilkes said.
Recent harsh weather conditions has also provoked the town to develop a communication system to inform residents and visitors about power outages and emergency notices. “We’ve greatly improved our Web site,” Wilkes said. “With that improvement, we’ve improved our communications with the citizens of Highlands— especially with Code Red. We’ve been in meetings with Duke Power to develop better communications with that supplier. This will enable us to accurately predict some power outages, and just as important if not more so, we can accurately estimate the time power will be out.
“I feel like knowing how long power will be out is very important.” Wilkes and his wife, Carol, own the Highland Hiker—a well-known Highlands retail shop specializing in outdoor apparel and equipment. “In my business, I will take certain steps if power is going to be out for an hour, other steps if it’s going to be four hours, and so on, explained Wilkes.
“We do need more people to sign up for Code Red, however. Those that sign up will receive a phone call and/or an e-mail advising of pending emergencies, power outages, etc.”
To sign up for Code Red, visit the Highlands Web site home page, www.highlandsnc.org, click on the Update 911 button, and then click on the Code Red button and fill out the required information.
“The only way we can communicate with people is to have the information necessary to do so,” Wilkes said.
The Parks and Recreation Department, under the leadership of Selwyn Chaulker, accomplished a lot during 2010. Commissioners Dennis DeWolf and Larry Rogers serve on the Parks and Recreation Committee. In addition to developing the Dog Park, Highlands Parks and Recreation Dept. replaced the lighting and remodeled the flooring in the Civic Center. The department also installed a new pool deck, and this past summer the pool had an average attendance of 91 kids vs. 44 the previous year. The department developed a Master Plan which will be its guide going forward.
Wilkes also praised the efforts of Hillrie Quin, who heads up Highlands’ Greenway Project, which also comes under the Parks and Recreation Dept. This past year, the Highlands Plateau Greenway was recognized by the Secretary of the Interior; it was placed on the National Trails Registry, and it received a $75,000 grant for additional improvements. The Town must match that grant.
Commissioners John (Buzz) Dotson and Gary Drake serve on the Town’s Finance Committee. Wilkes said the Finance Committee has been doing an extraordinary job. “We received an excellent report from the auditors,” Wilkes said. “Highlands is in good financial shape, and we entered fiscal ’11 with no tax increase. We did increase water, sewage and electricity charges. We are working toward making all of our funds self sustaining instead of having to move funds from the Electrical Department, where we usually have a surplus, to the other departments where we have had deficits.”
The Town of Highlands had its last court settlement on the Bowery Road right-of-way problem in 2010. That issue is now complete and “put to bed,” asserted Wilkes.
Highlands finalized the bids on renovating the former ABC store, so it can relocate the Police Department there. The building will maintain its current footprint, but the town will spend $620,000 modifying it for police use.
Highlands revised its personnel policy and is working on a new drug and testing policy, to be completed in 2011.
Going forward, Wilkes expects the Board to revisit the Town’s Land Use Policy, last revised five years ago. “We are a pedestrian- based community,” he said. “And we will continue that way, I’m sure ... more sidewalks, that sort of thing.
“We need to work on and complete the Lake Sequoyah sewer project. We should work on dredging Big Creek and take a look at relocating the town’s water intake.”
Has anything been a disappointment to the Mayor during his first year?
“There hasn’t really been a disappointment. But I have been a little frustrated at times. This has been my first experience in municipal government. After having been in business for the past 36 years, I get frustrated with the speed at which things move. Sometimes they move more slowly than I’d like.”
What one thing pleased the Mayor the most?
“It would be difficult to pick one thing,” Wilkes replied. It’s been a combination of meeting goals and improving customer service. We said in the beginning that we needed to have Highlands’ businesses and the Town’s government working closer together. We have done that. We are a hospitality community. Customer service is what it’s all about.”
Wilkes summed it up by expressing his appreciation for everyone that contributed to the town government throughout the past year. “I’ve enjoyed this past year. I have learned so much.”
Mayor David Wilkes discussed the issues and upcoming projects Highlands faces in 2011 from his office in the renovated Town Hall.