Sanford City Council votes to move forward on bond referendum

Jun. 19, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

The Sanford City Council voted 5-2 Tuesday night to let city residents vote whether to accept $14 million in bond referendums in November.

The city held a public hearing on the bond items — $4 million for greenways, $6.5 million for streetscape and pedestrian improvements in downtown Sanford and Jonesboro, $2 million for sidewalks and $2 millions for parks and recreation — although the only person outside the seven elected council members to speak up on any of the items was Richard Hayes.

Hayes, a former Lee County Commissioner and member of the board of directors for the Railroad House Historical Association, spoke in favor of the $6.5 million streetscape bond. He spoke specifically about Depot Park and the Railroad House, saying he believes that area is the heart of Sanford and has the potential to be a "much-needed magnet and catalyst" for downtown Sanford. The association's board, he said, unanimously approves of signing ownership of the house over to the City of Sanford from its current owners, and that the city could use the house as a museum or visitors' center and become more competitive with other cities of a similar size.

"We believe it is our responsibility and duty to bring this investment opportunity ... to find a way to transfer the deed for this building to the City of Sanford once and for all," Hayes said.

Council member Jimmy Haire called that opportunity "a great moment for the history of Sanford," and said that offering citizens the ability to vote on the four bond items is the right thing to do.

"This is the ultimate, as Mr. Lincoln said at Gettysburg, 'of the people, for the people, by the people,'" Haire said.

Adding that city staff spent upward of 100 hours working on the bond items, he said it would unfair to both them and the citizens to deny the bond items a spot on November's ballot.

Samuel Gaskins, who was one of two council members to vote against moving forward with the bond items, along with Walter McNeil, said he voted that way not to disparage the efforts of staff, but rather to give voters more time. With both the city and the county still undecided on how much to raise or lower property taxes, Gaskins said, locals can't make a completely informed decision on the bond referendums just yet.

"I think we need to table these bond issues until the citizens have a real opportunity to vote intelligently," he said.

Haire, however, said he sees this as a now-or-never opportunity: “I just want to say that if we come this far and don't give the people the right to vote, then I just don't believe it's going to happen."

Council members Charles Taylor, J.D. Williams, Poly Cohen and Rebecca Wyhof sided with Haire.

"This is the heart of what people have been trying to do for a very long time here in Sanford," Wyhof said.

Taylor said he personally doesn't agree with everything in the bonds, but that he thinks the council ought to put more items up to a popular vote in general, and this is a good one to start with. He also mentioned the work of city staff on the items, and how he thought it would be "despicable" to table the bonds at this point in time.

Cohen and Williams reported changing their minds at the last minute, which gave bond supporters the votes needed to put the refefrendums up for a popular vote. Williams said he had flip-flopped several times on which side he would support. He and Taylor had heated exchanges during the meeting, but he said even their differences couldn't stop him from changing his mind once more.

"As much as I would like to vote against Charles, I guess I'm going to have to change my mind again," Williams said.

Cohen didn't speak during the public hearing or voting process, but he told The Herald during a recess he was convinced that tabling the items could lead to them being voted down in the future.

"We need to let the people vote," he said. "I thought we should do it (in 2014), but I was told by a number of people it would do better in this year's election. ... We need the bond passed to improve the city, but it will raise taxes and people need to know that."

McNeil didn't state his reasons for wishing to table the issue until a later date — he and Gaskins were the only council members to vote for that option in a failed motion — but Gaskins did say he's personally a big fan of the bonds, just not the timing.

"I don’t think there's anyone in this room who would like to see the streetscape more than I," Gaskins said, adding: "Those people who appear to have been interested, the ones who have come here to speak in the past, have all argued against adding anything to the tax issue."

If all the referendums pass and are started at the same time, it would mean an extra 5.2 cent raise in property taxes for city residents, according to a staff report delivered to council members just before they voted.

However, Taylor said people need to be ready to take a stand instead of postponing hard decisions, and Haire said waiting would be a bad tactical decision since Central Carolina Community College will likely propose bond referendums next year, and having that many on the ballot could be too much for voters.

"Opportunity is opportunity, and this is the time," Haire said.

Herald reporter Anna Johnson contributed to this story.