(ABOVE: Listen to our podcast on this issue with Mayor Monte Mont
By Michael V. Hannigan/HCN
Call it a compromise.
The Athens City Council Monday evening approved conducting a citizen’s referendum on using Certificates of Obligation money for the Cain Center project.
Monday’s action — along with a decision last month to create a public steering committee — establishes a three-part procedure for moving the Cain Center rehabilitation toward a conclusion. Those parts are:
— The Cain Center steering committee established last month will continue its work.
— The City of Athens will keep for now the $5.33 million in Certificates of Obiligation currently earmarked for the Cain Center.
— Citizens will get a chance to vote on spending the money for the Cain Center.
Like most compromises, this one gives everyone a little bit of what they want and nobody everything they want, but it does establishes a definitive path forward.
“I think (Monday) night was a willingness to say instead of ‘no’ and ‘why’… ‘why not,’” said Steve Grant, who is heading the steering committee. “It was a compromise. We need to have an attitude here that our destiny is in our own hands.”
So let’s look at the pieces in place.
I. The Steering Committee
In November, the council agreed to give a group of community members and activists until April 2 to develop a viable plan for the Cain Center. The committee is led by Steve Grant.
Monday evening, Grant addressed the council and spoke about how the committee has been organized and what’s been accomplished already. He said their work would be broken down into four areas:
- Cost Assessment
- Usage and Planning
- Budget and Operations
- Public Relations
Grant said, “The study of (the project) would be from all angles; a local feasability study.”
“You can’t believe how many people in this community have called and offered their services,” he said.
One thing Grant said was important to help the committee move forward was to keep the Certificates of Obligation money.
“For if we’re out trying to influence other members of the community, businesses, foundations to give to this and be a buyer-in on this, how in the world can we expect them to do so if we’re not willing to do so,” he said.
Monday night the council did decide to keep the money and agreed to abide by the results of the planned referendum in May.
II. Certificates of Obiligation Money
In December 2016, the City Council approved issuing Certificates of Obligation to borrow about $12.1 million, $10.5 million of which was earmarked for the Cain Center project and a municipal building/police station.
As the project changed and as City officials realized there wouldn’t be enough for the police station, some of the money was used for improvements to the water and sewer system. In addition, about $500,000 has been spent on developing plans for the Cain Center.
That leaves about $5.33 million the City still has allocated for the rehabilitation project.
At this point, the City has the option of sending the money back (a process called defeasance) or keeping the money to use after the Steering Committee creates a plan.
The problem for some City Council members is the way the money was borrowed in the first place. Certificates of Obligation are a way local governments can borrow money for public works without voter approval.
Councilmen Robert Gross and Aaron Smith have consistently said the project should have been sent to voters to approve in the form of a bond. They have argued for sending the money back
Although he has been against sending the money back, Mayor Monte Montgomery has said he was against the use of Certificates of Obligation from the start.
But everybody agreed to keep the money and allow the Steering Committee to continue working with the introduction of the last piece, the referendum.
III. The Referendum
Monday, the council agreed to hold a citizen’s vote to determine the use of the $5.33 million, whether to move forward with the Cain Center rehabilitation or to send the money back.
The referendum will be on the May ballot and will come about a month after the Steering Committee’s report is due.
While the referendum is legally nonbinding, all the council members have agreed to abide by the results.
With the chance for citizens to vote approved, the decision-making process is in place: The City keeps the Certificates of Obligation money in support of the Steering Committee’s work of developing a plan for fixing and running the Cain Center. In May, voters will get the chance to say if they approve.
A Personal Observation
Tuesday morning, social media hummed with debate about the City Council’s newest decision and neither side escaped criticism.
For or against, keep the money or send it back, vote or don’t … every position was a target for somebody and considering the frustration over this issue, it is understandable.
Many say this has been a two-year process, but I would argue it has actually been more than three years. In the summer of 2015, the City discussed pulling its Cain Center funding which set off a community uproar.
The vote in 2016 to take over the Cain Center was influenced by what happened in 2015.
And the council decisions in 2018 were influenced by what the council did in 2016 … and that was influenced by what happened in 2015.
This is a complicated issue and that it is hard to single out and apply a particular argument to any council member for a particular vote. Each decision has become the agglomeration of various debates held over three years time.
Monday night, Councilwoman Toni Clay said, “I don’t feel like there’s anyone on this council who hasn’t given this a great deal of thought and taken it very seriously.”
I agree with her. It is something to remember.
For the record, the council voted 3-2 to hold the referendum.
Councilmembers Robert Gross, Aaron Smith
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