The more worthwhile a proposal is, the more it should invite – and be able to withstand – public scrutiny.
But Mayor Tom Henry’s plan to spend the first $20 million of the city’s $75 million “Legacy” fund is expected to attract opposition at Tuesday’s City Council meeting in part because it attempts to fast-track a package of projects that should be considered individually and with more deliberation.
The fruit of an extensive series of advisory meetings and public input, there is nothing particularly wrong with the nine proposals Council has been asked to consider as one or, for that matter, with any of the other ideas Henry outlined in October. But with six of nine available Council votes needed for spending approval, and with at least two Council members expressing reservations, it would be better for all involved to address those concerns now.
With so much money on the table, disagreement concerning its best use is not only inevitable but healthy. But many of the concerns deal with the process itself, beginning with the fact that Council members and the public have been given only one week to consider the specifics of Henry’s proposal.
“We had no chance to talk publicly about the projects with dollars attached to them,” said Russ Jehl, R-2nd.
Jehl wonders whether Council is in danger of committing itself to spending money it does not have and will not have for many years. With $30 million set aside, Jehl points out the Legacy account contains only $17.9 million in available cash – or about $2 million less than Council is being asked to spend Tuesday.
Some of those projects will be phased in over several years, so some could argue interest and other income will fill in the gap.
But Jehl said it will take years for interest earnings to provide the money needed for other Henry proposals, including $8 million for riverfront development, $8 million for a “downtown opportunity fund,” $6.5 million to endowment funds for higher education, public services, public art, entrepreneurship and $6 million for youth sports.
If the city wants to spend that money any time soon, he said, it may have to use anticipated interest income to repay a bond – a plan that would create debt and should be discussed now, he added.
“Do you really think we’re going to spend $500,000 on a riverfront development study then not do anything?” he asked.
John Crawford, R-at large, meanwhile, is skeptical of any future request to divert Legacy funds into endowments controlled by other groups. Who will make spending decisions? How? And as Crawford asked, why give those groups all the money at once instead of making them justify smaller annual requests?
Even Tuesday’s proposal to invest $1 million in the existing Downtown Development Trust is problematic. The trust was created by the Economic Development Alliance and the Downtown Improvement District to buy and redevelop properties and recently paid $250,000 for the former Instant Copy Building on Wayne Street.
But that purchase – completed out of the public eye – was made with private funds. The public deserves more accountability when public money is involved. The Legacy fund was created through the sale of the old City Light electric utility.
And Crawford properly wants any Legacy funds earmarked for river improvements or other redevelopment projects to include a performance bond that would require the developer to complete the project. The lack of such a bond on the Harrison condominium/commercial project is one reason the city had little recourse but to stay with the same developer years after the project should have opened.
“That’s one lesson I learned from Harrison Square” said Crawford, who is also skeptical of Tuesday’s proposal to crate an $8 million “Downtown Higher Education Opportunity Fund.”
In July, University of Saint Francis officials told The News-Sentinel their plan to buy the Chamber of Commerce Building and other nearby properties for its business school required $4 million in Legacy funds to complete within 12 to 18 months. Since then, however, the school has purchased those properties – leading Crawford to wonder whether the school really needs the help.
Although City Director of Community Development John Urbahns correctly noted that Tuesday’s vote would not commit Council to endorse future projects, approval could obligate additional spending. As a result, all proposals should be explained and examined sooner rather than later and, with that in mind, Council should have a robust discussion of the mayor’s entire proposal and would be wise to consider each project individually – or defer action on the $20 million package.
Urbahns, in fact, said Council has the authority to delay a vote another week. That could be time well spent. Twenty million dollars is a lot of money, but it can be spent very quickly and only once.
It’s important to get it right from the beginning, with as much support from Council and the public as possible.