City asks county for public support of downtown central office

SALISBURY — Salisbury City Council members are asking Rowan County commissioners to put it in writing.

City Council on Tuesday asked commissioners to write a letter to the state’s Local Government Commission stating they support the city’s efforts to construct a downtown office building and lease it to the school system. The letter would help convince the LGC that the city’s request to borrow $7.37 million for the central office would not result in a lawsuit, City Manager Doug Paris said.

The city withdrew its application last week, citing interference from Rowan County and a fear of legal action brought by the county or a private citizen. Staff for the LGC “shared their discomfort” during a conference call last week about the risk of approving a debt issuance that could be subject to a legal challenge, city officials said.

County officials have told the Post they would not derail the city’s application and did not threaten a lawsuit.

City Council wants that in writing, and they also want commissioners to vote on their support of the city and school system’s partnership.

The city also asked commissioners to publicly state that they will not oppose a long-term lease between the school system and city.

To avoid needing Rowan County’s blessing, the city and Rowan-Salisbury School System had planned to enter a short-term, 35-month lease for the central office — one day less than a term that would require commissioners’ approval.

With the commissioners’ letter in hand, the city would resubmit its application with hope of appearing on the LGC’s Oct. 1 agenda, city officials said. The nine-member appointed state board must give the nod before any N.C. city borrows money.

Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell suggested asking commissioners for the letter. Councilwoman Karen Alexander added the request for a public vote.

Blackwell recounted a joint meeting in City Hall between City Council and county commissioners where commissioners “wished us well and said they would step out of it.” But LGC staff have said county officials raised issues that caused concern about the city’s application, Blackwell said.

“I’m a little perplexed,” she said.

County Manager Gary Page told the Post that LGC staff contacted the county to ask why commissioners were no longer involved in the central office project. Page said the staffers wanted the county’s perspective, and he asked them several questions about the city’s application, including whether the city had the statutory authority to borrow money on behalf of the school system and if the LGC needed information about environmental contamination at the proposed central office site, 329 S. Main St.

Page said he also pointed out that the city intentionally crafted a lease arrangement that circumvents the county commission.

“I just asked those three or four questions,” Page said. “I didn’t say anything that would derail the project.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, City Council members read several quotes from county officials supporting the project and denying any interference.

A letter from the county to the state confirming those statements “may go a long way to addressing the discomfort shared with us by the Local Government Commission,” Paris said.

County commission Vice Chairman Craig Pierce did not return calls from the Post after the City Council meeting.

Councilman Brian Miller supported the motion but said he has “very little confidence that is going to happen.”

Whether commissioners will write a letter and vote to support the downtown central office may have become even more uncertain Tuesday afternoon.

While City Council was asking for the letter, county commissioners were meeting up the street in closed session. Commissioners emerged and voted to pay $25,000 as a “deposit” for an unnamed economic development project.

Sources tell the Post the money is a bid deposit to buy the Salisbury Mall, which goes up for auction Sept. 23. The mall repeatedly has been mentioned as a possible location for the school central office.

If the city has to abandon the downtown central office, more than $1 million will go to waste, Alexander said, including $750,000 in architect fees and close to $500,000 in state and local money to clean up the contamination.

The city doesn’t have much time to salvage the central office project, which has construction and financing bids each more than $1 million under budget but are set to expire.

If the commissioners act quickly, the city can continue with the project, Alexander said. Because the project requires no additional tax dollars, Alexander and Mayor Paul Woodson said they can’t understand why the county would be opposed.

“I hope it’s not about power, or ‘We can show you that we can win,’” Alexander said. “That’s not leadership.”

If commissioners ignore the city’s request, “that would indicate to me that what they are saying is not in fact what they mean,” Miller said.

Woodson and Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy reined in Miller, who has become City Council’s most vocal critic of the commissioners.

“I would rather not speculate,” Kennedy said. “I would like to think positive.”

Whether commissioners agree to write the letter will clarify their position, Paris said.

One commissioner restated his support for the downtown central office.

Jon Barber told City Council he supported Woodson’s declaration of a new day in city-county cooperation last month, when the city agreed to help pay for water-sewer extensions to the Rowan County Airport. Barber also said he would support the requested letter.

He gave a lengthy critique of self-righteousness and unwillingness to change, an apparent reference to some of his fellow commissioners.

“They do not see their walk with God as a community project,” Barber said.

Barber’s address to the council was not on the agenda, which did not include a public comment period. But resident DeeDee Wright asked to speak, and Woodson agreed.

Wright pointed out that city officials had said a private citizen, not only Rowan County, could file a lawsuit and delay the central office project for years.

Paris said if commissioners agree to approve a long-term lease between the city and school system, the lawsuit threat would be resolved.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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