SANFORD: Bond measures give voters say in city's future

Jul. 30, 2013 @ 06:43 PM

After months — or years depending on who you talk to — of deliberation, preparation and alteration, the future of four community-defining projects rests in the hands of Sanford voters.

City residents will not only select their next mayor and various city council representatives for the coming four years during the Sept. 10 municipal primary election, but they will also determine the outcome of Sanford's $14.5 million bond referendums, which include an expansion of the Endor Iron Furnace Greenway, sidewalk improvements, a new recreational park and streetscape renovations to downtown Sanford and Jonesboro. 

'Aggressive' move forward

The projects that city residents will cast their votes for in less than six weeks have been discussed for years, according to city staff, but it was during a Sanford City Council budget retreat in April that the conversation took on more urgency.

"There has always been the idea that you could achieve more with a referendum," said City Manager Hal Hegwer. "It's been talked about for years. It just got a little bit more serious this year."

The current one-and-a-half mile of the greenway, streetscape studies for downtown Sanford and citywide pedestrian plans have all been implemented by Sanford in pieces and now is the time, according to Sanford-Lee County Planning Director Bob Bridwell, to see how aggressively the public wants the city to move forward.

"We have pursued an incremental strategy for a very, very long time," he said. "And we believe that council is telling us that they want to move beyond incremental and move forward with major pieces."

If the referendum items are approved by the voters, the city will be authorized to incur debt and increase the property tax rate to pay for those capital projects, said Sanford Finance Director Melissa Cardinali. This will be the city's first general obligation bond referendum in more than a dozen years, if not longer, she said, adding that installment-purchase financing is one of the least expensive tools available for Sanford.

If all of the projects were approved and construction began at the same time, the potential tax-rate impact would be a 5.2-cent increase; the city's present rate is 54 cents per $100 of valuation. However, it is more likely that the projects will be spaced out over time and the tax impact could be less, Cardinali said.

"The next thing for us, would be, internally, to decide which projects are ready to be bid for contractors, and the board, given those parameters, would take steps to go to the bond market to get the bonds issued and fund those projects," she said.

The city has seven years to issue the bonds and begin the projects, and it can apply for a three-year extension.

An uncertain date

The bond referendums were originally slated for the Nov. 5 general election, but four council members advocated for and succeeded in moving the items to the Sept. 10 after House Bill 490 — a bill that requires the elections of Sanford City Council and the Lee County Board of Education become partisan — was approved by the General Assembly in late June.

Councilman Samuel Gaskins, who led the charge for the date change, said the bond referendums would encourage more people to vote in that election and make an educated vote on the bond issues.

"Now that we are required, thanks to [House Bill 490], to have a primary, I'd like to see the bond referendums be the focus," Gaskins said during the July 10 city council meeting.

During the council's public hearing Monday, Councilman Jimmy Haire encouraged his colleagues to push the date back to the November election to give the city more time to answer the public's questions and provide more information on each of the bond items.  Councilwoman Rebecca Wyhof, who voted against moving the election date to September, said one date change was enough.

"The process has started," she said. "Don't insult the voters by moving the vote to November."

An educational campaign

The city of Sanford is barred from using public funds to advocate for the bond referendums, according to Sanford Attorney Susan Patterson. It can, however, provide educational materials, and individual members of council are allowed to express their support or opposition for each of the bond items, she said.

City officials have established a mini-website, which can be found on Sanford's homepage at www.sanfordnc.net, that provides detailed information about each of the bond items, their potential impact on the city's tax rate and conceptual architectural renderings.    

Hegwer and Bridwell have already agreed to speak to various civic organizations and the Sanford Area Chamber of Commerce to answer any questions about the bond referendums, and the city staff has developed flyers, pamphlets and static displays to inform the voters about the bonds.

"We will be out speaking to interested parties who need factual information," Hegwer said. "We hope everyone will seek out the information, and we will do our best to provide the information that will allow all citizens to make an informed decision. That is the most important thing."