Shop talk: Always read the fine print

Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 21, 2013

As Salisbury City Council headed last Tuesday into a public hearing about financing a central office for the schools, we at the Post were stumped.
A piece of the puzzle was missing. City and school officials were absolutely certain their plan to lease central office space to the schools would not need county approval. But commissioners were equally certain that they could stop the school system from entering into the lease. They had been in contact with the Local Government Commission, the state office that has to approve local government finances.
The city was looking at a 20-year debt. The schools could not by law enter into a 20-year lease without county approval.
But what we and commissioners did not immediately realize was that the proposed lease was not for 20 years. It was for exactly one day less than three years — falling just under the threshold at which the schools were required to get county commissioners’ OK.
We at the Post cannot accuse school and city officials of being completely secretive about the 35-month lease. A draft of it was in the agenda packet for City Council’s June 27 meeting. The Post had a copy of it, but we had not read it. Agenda packets are often dense with public documents of all kinds. We’d already written about the 20-year debt and a lease-purchase agreement with the schools to cover it.

Hindsight’s eye is unblinking. It seems obvious now that we should have read that document and informed readers before the public hearing. Entering a 20-year debt with only a 35-month lease in hand involves greater risk. Taxpayers need to know what the city is getting into.
We were wrong about the 20-year lease, we’re being told now. It was a 35-month lease all along, they say. And no one thought to correct us, apparently.
Or maybe they thought it best to stay quiet.
The city advertised the hearing as one concerning lease-purchase financing — further buttressing the idea that the agreement with the schools was a 20-year lease-purchase agreement.

I frankly don’t know what brought on our “aha” moment on the 35-month lease the day after the hearing. But, having heard those were the terms, we pulled out the document. There was the key phrase under “lease term” — “one day before the third anniversary.”
The state statute concerning schools specifically says any operating leases of three years or more require the approval of the county commission. Schools can only use lease-purchase for equipment, not buildings.
City Manager Doug Paris said “lease purchase” in the context of city financing was the same as certificates of participation and had nothing to do with the actual lease.
Note to self: Always read the fine print and key documents.

Is it any wonder that some county officials distrust the city? Instead of an atmosphere of collaboration, we have a contest of wits. Who can out-maneuver whom?
But would maneuvering be necessary if the commissioners were open to collaboration?
Chicken or egg, I’m not going to solve that riddle. This is the state of Salisbury-Rowan at the moment, a rancorous system of checks and balances.
The fact that we didn’t figure out the term of the lease until after the public hearing probably matters only to us. The sentiment at the public hearing was so overwhelmingly in favor of helping the school system have a central office downtown, I doubt any of the speakers would have bowed out over terms of a proposed lease.

Here’s an interesting addendum. Dr. Ada Fisher was visiting the Post newsroom Friday afternoon to share insights on everything from the central office to world currency to how our children are doing. (Her sons and my daughters were classmates.)
A Republican National Committeewoman and former school board member, Fisher was the only person who spoke against the central office at the hearing.
Just as our conversation was ending, in walks City Manager Doug Paris for an unscheduled visit, just like Fisher’s. While he was talking to a reporter and Fisher was making her exit, I slipped out of the room to reheat my lunch.
I returned to find Paris and Fisher sparring over the central office. Fisher must have said something about the Salisbury Customer Service Center. The next thing I knew, Paris was inviting her to jump in his Jeep and go visit the building, and they left the newsroom together.
Paris returned after a while, alone. The building had been half-empty at one time, he said, but he showed Fisher that every office is now in use.
Fisher verified that. “I didn’t drink the purple Kool-aid,” she said in an email. But she was impressed with what the city manager has done in two years to turn around Fibrant and the Customer Service Center.
I was impressed that Fisher and Paris were willing to talk about a controversial subject in a good-natured way, instead of going off in a huff or avoiding conversation.
Score one for harmony — and chance encounters in the Post newsroom.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.