Late last December, I wrote a rather pointed op-ed piece on the development of the parks and recreation plan for the greater-Fayetteville area.
I appreciate our mayor and city council. I’m glad they have the foresight to improve the quality of life in our All-American City, because improvements are badly needed in our existing facilities, as is planning for new facilities. Organized athletics are not just entertainment. They can build teamwork and community spirit as well, and when they also reduce juvenile crime, the community gets a further bonus. Our senior citizens are living longer than ever before, and their quality of life is just as important as that of younger people. Two senior centers, one in East Fayetteville and the other in West Fayetteville, are long overdue.
But in my op-ed, I tried to explain the plan in its entirety, not just giving a “big picture” overview, but also taking a closer look at the hidden costs of the then-proposed $64 million plan. Several readers voiced appreciation for the background research I included in the article.
Last Monday the City Council met and revised the $64 million plan to a $35 million plan, still tying it directly to the bond referendum coming up this March. I sincerely think that’s a step in the right direction. The plan objectives are now set out much more clearly, for one thing, but transparency is essential to building trust. I still have several concerns about the modified plan, and about the local political context in which it would be implemented, if approved.
First, is the information being provided to the City Council accurate and reliable? If the council is to make good policy, they need to have accurate information. For example, on Dec. 14, city management assured the Council the total cost of the then-$28 million multipurpose complex would be approximately $700,000 per year. That very night, the council voted unanimously to approve the bond referendum being placed on the ballot in March. But later, on Jan. 4, a memo was distributed to say that the number city management gave at the Dec. 14 meeting was inaccurate. Council had already voted on the basis of an inaccurate figure. Now council learned that the true cost would in fact be around $2.3 million a year. That is an understatement of $1.6 million — every year! Unfortunately, this is not the only example of such, “mis-statements.” City management is rightfully expected to do their homework before council votes, rather than afterward. Money is not the issue here. Trust is.
Second, in the recent municipal election, some on our council campaigned loudly that they were going to hold the line on hasty tax hikes — they would support no tax increase until they had “looked under the hood” to see what synergies or savings they could find — specifically in the Fayetteville Public Works Commission. They have not yet kept that promise. In fact, due to an exceedingly ambitious city manager, who apparently wants PWC totally under his thumb, we are now mired in a sticky lawsuit that will reportedly cost the taxpayers of this city at least $500,000 to litigate. Back during the Big Bang annexation, the city signed a commitment to pay approximately $70 million toward the cost of the infrastructure in this newly-annexed area. But the current city manager wasn’t here when that promise was made, and he seems not to regard it as binding. He is now attempting to renege on that obligation. Just call us “Litigation City.” Keep in mind this $70 million cost was not written directly out of the city budget but was a reduction in the amount the city would have received from technically the ratepayers of PWC. Again, the underlying issue isn’t money. It’s trust. We like folks who keep their word, Ted (Voorhees).
Prior to negotiations crashing and litigation beginning, PWC had agreed to give back to the city approximately $1.3 million growing every year for inflation. We ended up not only giving that stream of income up but costing the citizens of this city $500,000 for litigation cost. It’s interesting that that $1.3 million a year would almost completely cover the interest expense assuming that the bonds were issued at 4.25 percent, not principal mind you but interest-only.
True, City Council has the obligation for oversight of PWC. That does not mean City Council members — all of them “part-time” public servants, with private careers of their own — have the time, skill or experience to operate a multi-million dollar public utility. Ah, but that’s why we have city management professionals, right? Re-read the above paragraphs.