Monday, June 17, 2024

114 West Elm Street
Graham, NC 27253
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Frittering away tax dollars without any public input

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Leave it to politicians to fritter away money – whether tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions – and, in some cases, to do so without even caring enough to hear from the public they ostensibly serve.

Two current local cases come to mind.

First, in Burlington, the city council there is moving toward putting two huge multi-million dollar bond referendum issues on the November 5 ballot.

One, for $47 million, would putatively be for recreation-related projects and a second proposes to raise $21.5 million for the city’s sidewalks and streets.  Under the category of “recreation,” the city hopes to obtain $11 million for a proposed expansion and renovation of the Paramount Theater; $6 million for a structure to enclose the Maynard Aquatic Center; and an even greater sum, originally set at $25 million, for a sportsplex in the western part of the city.

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What is all the more baffling is that the total size of this first bond package ballooned by $5 million from one city council meeting to the next – with little to no acknowledgement of the increase.

Apparently officials decided to put in $5 million more as a “cushion,” of sorts, in order to fund the “sportsplex.”  So the price tag for voters went from $25 million for a facility for which, we might add, has little demonstrated need or demand, to $30 million in one fell swoop.

When the city’s taxpayers consider these bond packages, they will also face the prospect of boosting their tax rate from about 5.68 cents to almost 7 cents per $100 valuation – if they decide to approve both.  At least voters will have a choice.

So far, all of the council’s discussion has been without an ounce of public input on whether there should even be any bond referendum – much less two of them, and never mind the particulars about what should be included in either one.

Instead, much like in Alice in Wonderland: first the verdict, then the trial.  Or in this case, first the decision to have a bond referendum, then some public comment.

State law requires that there be a public hearing before the bond referendums are put on the ballot.  The trouble is that, by then, the essence of the decision will have been made.

Burlington officials have already decided they want these issues on the ballot, they’ll be asking a state agency to approve their financial plans, and then they’ll seek the public’s blessing on their plans (they really don’t want to hear contrary comments).

 

And in Graham. . .

Equally deaf appear to be council members in Graham, who have a $600,000 windfall in the city’s coffers, compliments of a state grant for “downtown enhancement.”

The item appeared on the city’s May 14 council agenda.  City bureaucrats had put together a smorgasbord of ideas of projects that might be funded by such a grant.

Most of the half-hour discussion at that meeting was a soliloquy by mayor Jennifer Talley, who had all sorts of ideas about how to spend the money; she described at some length what she liked and didn’t like on the list which the staff had prepared.  The other four council members managed to interject only a few sentences of comments or observations as Talley monopolized the “discussion.”

Talley likes, for instance, the idea of spending $4,500 for hanging flower baskets.  She wants brick pavers for crosswalks and/or sidewalks – or at least to get back the “stamped” look that DOT destroyed when they repaved the roadway around Court Square last year.

The council’s consideration of how to spend the $600,000 grant will continue at next week’s (June 11) meeting, but it’s not clear whether the public will ever be asked for their opinions about how the money could most effectively be spent.

There’s not even any public hearing on the horizon in Graham – either on how to spend the money, or about what to do about the Sesquicentennial Park – another topic the council has raised without the first semblance of seeking public input.

For instance, it seems rather obvious to us that $600,000 could probably cover a significant portion of whatever repairs are needed for the corner park.

But instead, Talley immediately said, “no,” when asked whether any of the money could be designated for such a purpose.

Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that Talley is still enamored by the idea of abolishing the Sesquicentennial Park – under the guise of “relocating” it to some obscure portion of another city park.

While she has promised not to try to buy the current Sesquicentennial Park land herself or have any involvement in building a new structure, she still wants to replace it with a building whose owners would pay property taxes to the city.

Gone altogether, after just 25 years, would be the remembrance of the city’s and county’s 150th anniversary.

In both Graham and Burlington, the public’s views are not really being sought – unless it is to endorse the council’s already evolving plans.

Of course, even public hearings don’t guarantee that anyone  will actually show up to discuss anything.  Mebane adopted a budget this week without a single resident seeking to speak.  Burlington had three speakers, only one of whom actually talked about the budget.

We’re very concerned that such high-handedness by elected officials is contributing to already rampant public apathy.

And it’s somewhat understandable: after all, if the councils are going to go ahead with their plans, who cares what the public might have to say about it.  Most residents recognize that as a very sad reality.

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