Letter-to-the Editor: Massive New Barriers Looming Against the Downtown Central Office

Posted on July 21, 2013

Jonathan Morris, U.S. Army Ranger, Retired and Rowan County Sheep Baron

♦I watched with growing amusement the circus down at city hall being conducted to foist the Taj Mahal at 329 S. Main on the taxpayers of Salisbury.  I am always tickled by this desperate little city, with delusions of grandeur, when they fall for one get rich quick scheme after another.  Yeah grow their economy and bring in big time investment with such brainiac maneuvers as taking on deep pocketed Time Warner Cable, AT&T U-Verse, DirecTV, and Dish with unarguably the worst municipal broadband flop ever. The city is still trying to sell that miserable failure as a turnaround.

Well folks Fibrant and its humongous 70 million dollar debt it incurred has the region talking about Salisbury in the same breath as the recently bankrupt Motor City.  Small wonder.  Over 10% of Salisbury’s inhabitants are in local prisons and jails at any given moment.  Some people conjecture that far more prison city residents exist than 10% since the bonehead city forcibly annexed the county prison.  The city got slick in an effort ramp up their already impressive poverty stats so they could nail the Federal government for a massive infusion of grant money to blow on other hair-brained projects.  Salisbury rattles its tin pan for more alms as it backstrokes in an ocean of poverty.  22.4% of its citizens are in poverty and 62% of its children are getting free lunch through its school system.  Salisbury truly is entitled to some major bravado about how poor and lawless it is.  Its public record.  “You got a problem chump?  I’m from Salisbury.”

That was quite a show down at city hall last week when the school system, Downtown Salisbury Inc., and the downtown merchants trotted out their lackeys to entertain us with over two hours of  Salisbury-speak: “Vibrant” “Progressive” and “Visionary”.  Sorry folks these words are an ill-fit for one fastest dying cities in the history of urban flight.  Salisbury is well-known for being picked apart by special interests and flim-flam artists in a long false parade of economic projects put forward to pump adrenalin into a corpse.  The downtown Central Office is the latest and perhaps the most ludicrous.  Even if it got snuck by the Local Government Commission it won’t raise the economic dead–just plunge hopeless Salisbury into deeper debt.

Okay–let’s cut to the chase.  Let’s talk barriers to the Central Office getting past the LGC. Trust me these barriers are higher than the Hindu Kush and are many times larger than a rapid thumbs down from the 3 county commissioners, the true guardians of our county, Salisbury, and our kids!

•The hurdle of a lender and having a clear deed.  Does the city have a viable “No further Action” letter to show possible lenders.  Still has some test wells down at the South Main Money Pit.  Groundwater contamination does migrate.  That may arch some eyebrows not only among lenders, but it may draw heat from the LGC.  This isn’t the bigee.

•Don’t mean to toss banana skins on the dance floor, but the LGC may look at Salisbury’s lack of financial stability and its problems with Fibrant, its eye-popping debt, and its abuse of its reserve funds without paying them back.  The LGC will closely examine the lease itself and notice how it is being used by the city to circumvent the LGC statues.  Slick move, but it may raise eyebrows from a state commission sworn to protect citizens from shabby business practices and unprincipled leaders.  The LGC’s eyeballs will bulge when they see that after 35 months the school board, perhaps with many new faces, will have the right to trot out of the Taj Mahal.  Kinda like Peter Pan possessed a no contract Nokia cell phone–he might suddenly like Virgin better.  The citizens of Salisbury could be left holding the bag.  Perhaps this might be a blind spot for those cagey slicksters in the city manager’s office, but the LGC is the protector of the public good and weighs heavily in that direction.  Still not the bigee.

•My curiosity was tweeked when City Finance Director John Sofley discussed NC General Statutes, which he claimed expressly gives municipalities the authority to participate in economic development for “Purchase of land; Construction of facilities including new buildings, parking and utility lines; Economic incentive grants; and Issuance of debt.” Being a skeptic, particularly when it comes to the City of Salisbury record of veracity, I called my attorney brother and asked him exactly what NC General Statute ‘expressly gives’ Salisbury the authority to build a Taj Mahal Central Office, and call it “Economic Development,”?  This travels along with the accoutrements of debt issuance.

My brother and his researchers could not find any statutory authority for Salisbury to participate in economic development for a 3-story, 62,000 square foot “office” building, whether they have a tenant ready to move in or not.  At first I thought he was pulling my leg, so I said, “I wasn’t expecting the general statutes to be THAT specific!”  Then he directed me to NC General Statute §159-81, regarding the powers of municipalities to issue debt, with no further explanation.  He said it would be self-explanatory to a lay person.

I found it is partially true that a municipality in North Carolina is permitted to engage in economic development projects including the construction of new buildings and issuance of debt, but municipalities may only do so for industrial or commercial development.  Irrespective of the potential economic ‘impact’, the construction of office buildings is not among the enumerated economic development projects for which a North Carolina municipality is granted statutory authority to build or issue debt.  Now I’m not a lawyer, but I’ve read that no portion of the proposed 62,000 square foot central office building is in any remote manner related to industrial or commercial development.  Therefore, it seems that the lack of a statutory basis for the so-called ‘economic development’ of a central office for the local public schools will not pass the expert scrutiny of the Local Government Commission (“LGC”), which already has Salisbury’s number when it comes to their attempts to circumvent the statutes in their hell-bent quest to build that central office downtown.  So much for trying to stretch the meaning of statutes into what they want them to be, instead of what they actually say.

According to NC General Statute §159-81(3)(m), municipal revenue bond projects may be used for “economic development projects which are statutorily limited to “the acquisition and development of industrial parks, the acquisition and resale of land suitable for industrial or commercial purposes, and the construction and lease or sale of shell buildings in order to provide employment opportunities for citizens of the municipality.”  The only statutorily-authorized revenue bond project that a municipality can use for office buildings is NC General Statute §159-81(3)(m), which grants authority to engage in revenue bond projects on “facilities for the use of any agency or agencies of the government of the United States of America.”  And last time I checked, the Rowan-Salisbury School System was NOT a federal agency.  So much for ‘epic failure’ on wishing the law says differently.

In Sofley’s presentation, he stressed the public hearing requirements, at which a carefully orchestrated ‘love-in’ of supporters built a mythical ‘wall of support’ for the unpopular downtown central office.  He proclaimed that it was an “opportunity for public [sic] to provide comments on their support or lack of support for the project being financed and the method of financing.”  Well, I and most other critics do not live inside the city limits.  But the public notice I had read, claimed a 20-year lease-purchase—when in fact, by the time they got to public hearing, they realized that was not a legal option.  So the public hearing focused on a 35-month lease, still with payments over $500,000 per year, with the young city manager smirking and claiming that he had no idea where the 20-year lease-purchase idea came from, that it was never the plan.  So much for relevant public notices.

Sofley concluded his presentation by saying that General Statute 168-20 enables the debt to be secured by the facility itself, for the construction of the 62,000 square foot office building.  I looked up NC General Statute 168-20, and found that it reads,  “The General Assembly has declared in Article I of this Chapter that it is the public policy of this State to provide persons with disabilities with the opportunity to live in a normal residential environment.”  As a disabled veteran  with limited mobility, I’m glad to have this piece of information.  But I’m not at all sure what this statute has to do with Salisbury going into debt for the downtown central office building.  So much for accuracy, I suppose.

In a nutshell, the LGC, as a watchdog commission of the State Treasurer’s office, will deep-six plans for issuance of debt for the latest incarnation of the faux ‘economic development’ project in Salisbury.  And they will do it with greater efficiency and speed than the county commissioners could even muster.   The shills who support this ill-conceived bilge are well-organized, I’ll give them credit for that.  But before they start telling us they have authority from general statutes, they may want to realize that some of us have internet access, and can look those statutes up online.

One more item before I close out this letter, the esteemed Editor of the Rowan Free Press Mr. Mensing should be hired at once by the City of Salisbury for the nominal fee of one dollar and appraise them of sure fire ways to lift them from their economic torpor.  I was particularly enamored with his downtown master plan which turns on the axis of a giant ceramic block igloo positioned in the very center of 329 S. Main Street.  It will not depend on million dollar pontoons to adjust for infill nor will it require a dome.  Because it IS a dome.  This giant igloo will be the historical repository of all the great hoaxes of the Western World.  The Piltdown Man.  The Brooklyn Bridge’s numerous handwritten deeds.  A collage of get rich quick buried treasure maps.  And Salisbury’s late Central Office.  The “domed museum” will be the anchor of South Main and will set off a tourist stampede likely to overwhelm the humble little junk and trinket shops. It will be a moment of true vibrancy and visionary thinking.  The county commissioners and Salisbury’s city council can cut the ribbon together and sit as one like the lion and the lamb in those garishly illustrated “Awake” publications.  The trump of good fortune will resound throughout the city and the county.

Ta Ta

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