LAKE NORMAN — Everything comes at a price, and annual town work sessions are no exception.
With new board members and the budget season nearing, Davidson, Cornelius and Huntersville commissioners hold retreats outside usual meeting times to discuss strategic planning in a more informal setting.
Some opt to travel from their respective jurisdictions, while others hunker down in a town facility to hash out details. The expense to each town’s residents ranges from several hundred to a few thousand dollars.
Davidson staff members, including the mayor, commissioners, town manager and all department leaders, traveled to Southern Pines at the end of January for three days and two nights.
Town Public Information Officer Cristina Shaul, who was in attendance, said the annual retreats are geared for new commissioners to get caught up, the board to get advice from a consultant and to make goals.
According to the agenda, the board started at 11 a.m. and was slated to finish at 8:30 p.m. the first day, go 8:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. the second day, and 8:30 a.m. until noon the last. Each day included time for short breaks and meals.
The retreat cost $7,650 for the hotel, food and meeting room fees, with an additional $4,500 to have a facilitator each day — totaling $12,150. Shaul said the expense came in under the town's budget, having allocated $7,800 for travel expenses and $6,500 for the consultant.
This year was the first retreat they’ve held away from town in a long time, Shaul said.
“I'm pretty sure during the economic downturn, we didn’t go anywhere, but at the November 2013 retreat, the board reemphasized their commitment to going away," she said. "They put money in the budget for this fiscal year and really see the value in getting us all out of town — being able to focus on our goals, mission and core values in a setting where we can’t be distracted or disturbed by anything else."
Cornelius shares similar views about getting away for retreats, traveling to Winston-Salem annually for 10 years to discuss budgets.
Town Manager Anthony Roberts said retreats usually last one night and two days.
This year’s is scheduled for mid-March and will have 18 people, including the mayor, board and department heads, in attendance.
“We get rolling in the early morning,” Roberts said. “It changes every year. We usually start 7-8 a.m. and can go to 11 p.m. or after midnight the first day. We have breaks for some meals, but we usually work through dinner.”
The second day starts around 8 a.m. and goes until 1 or 2 p.m., Roberts said.
“This is hardcore budget time,” Roberts said of the purpose. “We talk about where we are and get some project updates. We’ll talk about the anticipated impact of the revaluation and revenue. We’ll pretty well draft a budget at the retreat and recommend it to them.”
Total retreat costs are between $5,500 and $6,200, Roberts said, and includes everything — mileage, hotel, food. Roberts said they have never hired outside consultants because they have never needed one and don’t want to spend money on it.
“We are always close enough within a two-hour range,” Roberts said. “But we get more done. It gets us away. We all have family, kids and business. The only way to focus all of your time and effort is to take you away.
“It’s worked well for us and gives us the best bang for the buck. We have the lowest tax rate in Mecklenburg County, so we talk the talk and walk the walk.”
Instead of going elsewhere to hold their retreats, the Huntersville board prefers to stay in the area.
“Although it can be productive to meet out of town, the town board has been cognizant of the economic challenges of the past number of years and has decided to keep costs as low as possible,” said Town Manager Greg Ferguson. “By keeping the retreat in town, it also allows for more staff to participate.”
For the past few years, commissioners have held their two-day meetings at the Lee S. Dukes Water Plant, though they have also used the Huntersville Town Center and a site at Rural Hill.
“There is no charge for the town facility or the water plant, with Rural Hill only charging a small cleaning fee,” Ferguson said.
Since the board met this year at the water plant, the town only had to pay for lunches and snacks — totaling $800. Meetings lasted from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. both days.
Ferguson said discussion is based around strategic planning for the next few years, including capital projects, facilities and provisions for major services.
Regardless of whether boards travel or remain in the area, by law, all meetings are open to the public.