First Posted: 1/15/2009
LUMBERTON - Proponents and opponents of the Northeast Park were scrambling on Friday to bring people who think likewise to City Hall on Monday, when the City Council will vote again on whether to borrow money to begin construction on the project.
Councilmen John Cantey, one of four councilmen to switch their votes Wednesday to one in favor of borrowing $250,000 and proceeding with the park, said he had received 63 phone calls by Friday from residents curious about his switch. He said many asked if it is OK to bring placards to the council chambers.
“It's going to be interesting,” Cantey said.
The City Council voted 7 to 1 during a policy committee meeting last week to borrow the money and proceed, a decision that stirred emotions. Park supporters and opponents have used the telephone, e-mails and fliers to rally their troops. Monday's meeting will include a public comment period, so the line could grow long.
Cantey, Erich Hackney, Robert Jones and Harry Ivey last month voted against using $250,000 in cable television revenue as a way to begin the first phase of the park. But they switched their votes on Wednesday when a compromise was offered - using about half of annual franchise money each year to repay the loan - leaving Jackie Taylor as the lone vote against.
“I think we will most likely go forward with what we decided on at CPC,” Hackney said.
Hackney said he was comfortable with his recent vote because only about half of the cable franchise revenue - which totals about $170,000 annually - would be used to pay of the $250,000 loan, leaving the rest for existing recreational facilities.. The franchise money is earmarked for capital recreation expenses.
Cantey said his concerns about the park and the city's recreation offerings were met after he researched the issue.
“In this particular situation, it's not going to make everyone happy, but we can only do what's best for the citizens,” Cantey said. “That's what I'm trying to do.”
But Wednesday's vote, because it came in a policy meeting, must be taken again during a regular City Council meeting.
City officials and recreation advocates have been planning the 91-acre park since the 1980s. In November, residents voted against the issuance of up to $8 million in bonds as a financing method.
The $250,000 is needed to start construction, which must happen by March 1 or else the city loses a $500,000 state grant from the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund. But the city could lose much more.
According to City Attorney Kevin Whiteheart, not meeting the terms of the grant would take the city out of the running for similar grants in the future. The city has already received and spent two other grants totaling $330,000 to buy some land for the park. The $500,000 grant has not been spent.
“They wouldn't be asking for the previous money back, but they would ask for the $500,000 to be returned,” Whiteheart said.
The city has bought land, drawn plans and held public hearings in preparation for building the park during the last several years, but proponents and opponents paint Monday's meeting as a watershed moment.
“A few years ago, the city went after this grant without having the matching funds in hand,” said Barney Bornn, a city resident who plans to attend Monday's meeting. “Now we're in a situation where we either have to match the money and start construction, or we'll never get another grant. So basically this earlier City Council put us between a rock and a hard place. One of the points I want to make is that's very bad fiscal policy.”
Ed Johnson has led an organized effort against the park. He said he has been posting fliers in Precincts 4, 5, 6 and 7 that encourage opponents to be at the meeting.
“I'm curious why so many of the board members changed their votes,” Johnson said. “Maybe they'll explain that Monday night. …
“… The city can't even afford to match the grant, but some of the City Council members will cram this down anyone's throat no matter what,” Johnson said. “We will make it a political issue for anyone that runs. … A big concern of a lot of people is that we're going to end up with another white elephant like the farmers market. The difference is the state has a lot more resources than the City of Lumberton.”
Because Mayor Raymond Pennington is a park supporter and would break a 4-4 tie in favor of the park, four councilmen would have to switch their Wednesday votes to change the outcome. But Bruce Mullis, chairman of the Lumberton Recreation Commission, is taking nothing for granted.
“I'm hoping to see a lot of folks supporting the park there,” he said. “It would be a great show of solidarity and show of support, allowing City Council to see that there is support for getting the park moving. There is concern amongst the citizens; they don't want to lose the investment that has already been made and potentially lose the opportunity to receive other grants, whether for recreation or related to other needs if we're deemed poor grant managers.”