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City agrees to help county pay for airport improvements

SALISBURY — After a sometimes tense exchange between Salisbury and Rowan County officials, City Council agreed Tuesday to help pay for water and sewer service to a new hangar at the Rowan County Airport.
A month after Rowan County succeeded in having the airport removed from Salisbury city limits, the county asked the city to kick in $39,700 from the now-defunct Airport Development Fund for water-sewer improvements. The city and county both contributed airport property tax revenues to the fund for four years, and Rowan County commissioners vice chairman Craig Pierce asked the city on Tuesday to “use the money for the intent it was taken.”
Ultimately, City Council members agreed they should make good on their commitment to invest in economic development at the airport. But before the unanimous vote, the discussion took several turns.
City Manager Doug Paris, who reminded City Council that county commissioners told the city to “get out of the way” as they pursued deannexing the airport, said the county had tied the city’s vote on airport funding to a request for help with Kesler Mill.
Last week, the city asked Rowan County to waive landfill tipping fees for the former Kesler Mill site. The owner, a nonprofit organization based in Atlanta, has agreed to clean up huge piles of debris and rubble in the Park Avenue neighborhood if the county waives the tipping fees, which could reach $162,000, and the city waives any fines.
“Can you help us with estimated tipping fees and taxes?” City Planning Director Janet Gapen wrote in an Aug. 1 email to Pierce.
In his reply, Pierce hinted that waiving the fees for the Kesler Mill cleanup would depend on how City Council voted on the airport funding.
“I am working on getting a solution for this problem, unfortunately I am being held up by the commissioners until we see what kind of future cooperation we receive from the city,” Pierce wrote Monday night. “We have an issue in tomorrow’s City Council meeting that will probably set the tone for our future working together.
“Let me see how things move forward and I’ll keep you informed of our progress.”
After referencing the email Tuesday night, Paris recommended that City Council and county commissioners hold a joint meeting to discuss both the airport funding and Kesler Mill cleanup.
But Pierce said he sent the email in a spirit of cooperation to let Salisbury know that if City Council voted down the airport funding, he would have a “harder selling job to the other commissioners to get them to agree to waive the tipping fees.”
“It wasn’t an attempt to say if you don’t do this, we won’t do that,” Pierce said.
He said Paris’ recommendation to connect the two projects wasn’t fair and accused the city manager of trying to hold the airport funding hostage in exchange for the tipping fees.
“You’re missing the point here,” Pierce said. “We’re trying to show you cooperation.”
Pierce said the water-sewer extension will serve not only the new hangar, which the county is building, but everything to the right of the tarmac and will benefit the city.
City Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy defused the standoff by saying he wanted to give the county the money.
“I’m going to extend the olive branch,” Kennedy said.
Councilman Brian Miller agreed, although he said Pierce connected the projects, not Paris.
“We made a commitment and we need to honor it,” Miller said.
While saying it was “entirely ironic that we were told to get our of the way and now we are asked to be a partner again,” Miller also made an emotional plea to end the longstanding city-county feud.
Speaking to Pierce and county commission Chairman Jim Sides, who was in the audience, Miller said the city and county “have to stop this.”
“Let’s put all this other crap behind us,” he said. “… I don’t care what happened in ‘07, I don’t care what happened in ‘87. Let’s put it behind us.”
Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell agreed to give the county the money.
“I’m proud to be the council that takes the higher road,” she said. “… We will wait to see how you respond in kind.”
She reminded Pierce and Sides that “the public will be watching.”
As the newest council member, Karen Alexander said, “It’s time that we lay down the arms and reach across the invisible lines.”
Earlier in his comments, Pierce had alluded to a cease-fire as well, saying about the airport deannexation battle, “I hope that we can put this behind us, pay these monies and work together in the future.”
Mayor Paul Woodson said he harbors no hard feelings over the airport fight and is ready to move forward with the county.
“Maybe we can start a new day,” he said.
Woodson told the public to mark Aug. 6, 2013 “as the day that the city and county decided to go ahead and get things going for the betterment of the whole community.”
County Manager Gary Page thanked the Salisbury-Rowan Utilities for saving the county time and money by designing the water-sewer extension last year and said county officials will discuss how they could waive or reduce landfill fees for the Kesler Mill cleanup.
Kennedy said he still liked the idea of a joint meeting to discuss how the city and county could work together on other projects.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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