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'Y' on hold

City to hold referendum on sports complex

Posted: January 24, 2012 5:22 p.m.
Updated: January 25, 2012 5:00 a.m.

The city of Camden will hold a referendum asking voters to choose if they wish to move forward with a proposed sports complex and if it should be run by a nonprofit organization such as the YMCA of Columbia. The measure will be placed before Camden voters during November’s general election. The decision came in the latter portion of a lengthy Camden City Council meeting Tuesday morning that ended with a woman demanding to be heard who had to be asked to leave the chamber.

The issue of whether or not to hold a referendum was not a part of council’s official agenda. City Attorney Charles Cushman asked council for the vote following an approximately 30-minute executive session to discuss a lawsuit filed by Herbert Farber and the Camden Committee for Responsible Government (CCRG). What Cushman really responded to, however, was a petition with more than 1,000 signatures presented to the city by Camden Recreation Referendum Committee (CRRC) attorney Reese Williams during the meeting’s public forum.

Williams, a Columbia-based attorney, presented the petition which proposes an ordinance that would create the CCRC’s version of the referendum question. The CCRC proposed an ordinance to stop all funding and planning for the sports complex’s construction, and management by a third party such as the YMCA, and create a committee to study facility and funding alternatives. Cushman said the petition would be forwarded to the Camden Municipal Election Commission for validation.

Later in the public forum, Weston Adams III spoke about the lawsuit he filed on behalf of Farber and the CCRG. The lawsuit seeks to stop the city from using hospitality tax funds to pay for the sports complex’s construction.

“I’ve really come here out of friendship,” Adams said, “as fellow stewards of the city of Camden. We simply want an answer to the question about whether the expenditure is appropriate.”

Adams said he did not believe it would be appropriate for the city to move forward while the lawsuit is pending.

Between Williams and Adams, Dr. Karin Jenkins, a member of Camden for the Y (CFTY), expressed her continued support for the project. Jenkins commended council for following a 2008 downtown vision plan by creating the hospitality tax and proposing to use it to fund the sports complex’s construction.

“I admit, when I first heard the plans for the sports complex, I had a lot of questions and reservations,” Jenkins said, holding her infant son. “Even after attending one of your Meetings with the Mayor, my husband and I continued to ask questions. I appreciate your patience in answering our endless calls and emails. After learning all of the specifics of the project, my husband and I were incredibly excited about what this could offer Camden.”

Jenkins, whose husband, Austin, is also a CFTY member, listed off what she said would be the benefits: child care, health education and classes for all ages, increased tourism, afterschool programs, recreation opportunities for all segments of the population and, potentially, an indoor pool.

“We were profoundly dismayed to hear all of the rumors that have circulated about this project, which only prompted more calls to council. At one point, it seemed to us that we were the only people in Camden who supported this project. Then we began talking to our friends and co-workers and realized that everyone we knew supported this project, but was afraid to speak up because of the negativity that surrounded it. Many more supported it and had no idea it was being threatened,” she said.

Jenkins said she and her husband talk weekly to their children about doing the right thing and standing up for “what is right.” She said the CFTY was formed to “disseminate truthful information” and as a venue for citizens wishing to express their support.

“Our goal, no matter what the result, was to make sure that we did the best we could for these people and to work for the cause in an honorable way. But, most of all, we would be able to look in our children’s eyes and tell them we stood up for them and our community,” Jenkins said.

She brought up a subject City Manager Kevin Bronson, Councilman Walter Long and Jeffrey Graham would speak to later in the meeting: that the CCRG lawsuit and CRRC petition may have caused the city to lose out on a possible $1 million to $1.5 million in funds from the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s New Markets Tax Credit program. The program is administered by the Treasury’s Community Development Financial Institutions Fund (CDFI).

“To the petitioners, I respect your hard work and conviction in working toward this petition, but what I really want to know from you is if your efforts are successful, what are you going to do to make this up to our children and our community?” Jenkins asked. “Will you work to find grant money to make up for the $1.5 million you may cause our community to lose? And, finally, if it turns out to be the case, will you one day regret that you have taken such an incredible opportunity away from the lives of so many in this community?”

Following the executive session, council asked Bronson to speak about the CCRG lawsuit.

“The city’s position is that it is completely frivolous and without merit,” Bronson said.

Bronson said the city’s bond attorney, Margaret Pope, had already advised the city that funding the construction of the sports complex is an appropriate use of hospitality taxes. Pope, he noted, helped craft the very state legislation creating the hospitality tax.

“But we have also talked about bringing outside equity to the project,” Bronson said. “The staff has worked diligently to bring us the New Market Tax Credit (NMTC). The way it works is, essentially, less like a grant and more like a forgivable loan.”

He said TD Bank is one of the organizations that can receive NMTC funds and disburse them. Bronson said the city received word Thursday it could go ahead with using the NMTC to help fund the sports complex project. The $1 million to $1.5 million range, he said, is equal to 22 percent of the estimated $5 million to $6 million the sports complex will cost to build.

“This lawsuit essentially robs us of those funds. With the lawsuit pending, we cannot accept them,” Bronson said, noting that the current NMTC program cycle ends in September.

Bronson said the city is awaiting final design plans from JHS Architecture Integrated Design, which he said were about three weeks away.

“Once we get those plans, staff will stop work,” Bronson said. “We will hold off on that activity until we clear up the lawsuit.”

Bronson then asked council to allow Cushman to report on the CRRC’s latest petition.

Cushman said it was “obvious” the group had sought legal assistance to craft its proposed ordinance.

“But, in my opinion, it goes too far,” he said. “There are very limited things that voters can bring to the public. The question is whether or not we should continue with plans for a recreation facility and, should the project continue, to be managed by a third party. My recommendation -- I would ask that you direct me to develop a question to be put in an ordinance to put before the voters -- that would put forth these two questions:

“Do we proceed with construction? And do we have it managed by a third party?”

Cushman suggested the measure be placed on the November ballot.

Council voted unanimously to have Cushman craft the city’s version of the ballot measure, but not before Long and Graham had their say.

Long singled out, as a couple, Herbert Farber and his wife, Janet.

“I hope everyone understands the significance of what is transpiring today,” Long began. “The Farbers and many of the sports complex opponents have done a remarkable job of creating distrust in the community by pitting neighbor against neighbor, neighbor against council, business against council and so on and so on. And now, because they have not gotten their way, the Farbers have filed suit. The result of this filing is the loss of $1.5 million towards the sports complex.”

Long repeated Bronson’s assertion that the lawsuit is frivolous.

“The Farbers know that, council knows that and you should know that as well.

“Whether you or a proponent of a referendum or a supporter of the sports complex, you should know that the lawsuit is nothing more than an attempt to delay the project. The action could negate the call for a referendum, so those of you who have worked tirelessly to petition the city for a referendum will have done so in vain,” Long said.

He claimed the Farbers knew they would be unsuccessful in changing state law, so they sued the city.

“A good strategy, but is it good for you?” Long asked. “An estimated $5 million project that could have been $3.5 million. Legal fees that will mount up, and trust me, they will; we are familiar with the firm that represents the Farbers.”

However, Long, as Graham would later, said he saw the situation as an opportunity.

“An opportunity to reengage with other governmental entities and all other interested parties to look at every possible scenario to see this project through, even if it requires compromise so that we do not miss out on an opportunity to receive $1.5 million in funding. I will support the motion to ask Mr. Cushman to prepare an ordinance which would essentially place the question on the November ballot.

“In addition, I am publically asking that the Farbers withdraw their lawsuit so that our taxpayers will not bear the expense of another lawsuit. And if they do not, I would ask the public to demand this of them,” Long concluded.

Graham began by noting how city staff “tirelessly worked” to find different funding opportunities for the sports complex. The mayor said he had been optimistic about the NMTC funding, calling it a “grant.”

“But we didn’t share that information until we knew it would be reality, and that is gone now,” Graham said. “Because of the lawsuit, you and I, as taxpayers, will pay and also lose the $1.5 million. Even if (voters) say ‘yes,’ we now will not be able to use the hospitality tax or the $1.5 million.”

Graham called the situation “unfortunate” and “disappointing.”

“It’s a lot of money -- money we would not have had to pay back. As you’ve heard about the lawsuit and the petitions before us, we, indeed, have a lot of legal costs that you and I will pay -- on both sides -- and to what gain? What gain other than to spend our tax dollars and not use it for something useful,” Graham said.

He, too, said there was an opportunity for continued dialogue, however.

“To learn the lessons -- I know I’ve learned lessons -- from this,” he said. “This is a great community and it will continue to be a great community and that’s what we have to work with.”

Graham said the city has not promoted tourism or held good conversations about improving recreational opportunities as perhaps it should have during the past 15 years or more.

“Recreation, hopefully, will be a priority in the future whether we have this complex or not. I think it’s a great opportunity to reengage the community and county and have a dialogue about where we want to go. I’m grateful to those who have stood up and want to talk about it. We need to invest in our community and I think most of you agree with that.

“I will vote for staff to get this ordinance to us -- it’s important to look at the reality of this,” Graham said.

The mayor then called for what turned out to be the unanimous vote on Cushman’s request. He then called for a vote to adjourn.

At that point, a woman stood up in the back of the chamber and asked to be heard: Janet Farber.

Graham overrode her, trying to explain that this was not the time for her to speak. Farber refused, continuing to talk to the point where Graham instructed a Camden police officer in plain clothes to escort her out of the chamber. Instead, Farber agreed to leave for the few moments it took for the meeting to officially end.

During an interview at the C-I’s offices about 15 minutes later, Farber said she was trying to respond to Long and Graham’s assertions that she and her husband had caused problems in the community. She also said the mayor was “wrong” about the city not having to repay the $1 million to $1.5 million it might have received from the NMTC program.

“If they are going to use their place on council to disparage individual people, they should give us the opportunity to speak,” Farber said. “What I think was wrong is that when I asked to speak, I should have been given the opportunity. If they wanted to speak in general -- but if they’re going to talk about someone by name, they need to give them the chance to speak.”

Farber said the “desired outcome” of the “cumulative effect” of the lawsuit and petitions in suspending action on the sports complex was a “good thing.”

“As to continued statements that we or the petitioners stopped them receiving $1.5 million is spurious. It’s not a grant that’s been given or offered. Every dollar they might be able to get will have to be repaid,” she said.

Farber said the mayor’s use of the word “grant” was a way to “enflame” the public into believing they had lost a gift -- that he and Long had “mischaracterized” the situation.

“The lender receives the tax credits,” Farber said; in this case, according to Bronson, TD Bank. “The government program runs through September. It is possible that, in the interim, with meaningful discussions about what should be done … there’s time, if those funds are appropriate or even needed.

“We haven’t deprived the city of anything. We’ve stopped them from the rush to complete, with more than 1,000 petitioners,” Farber said.

According to an article in the May 2011 edition of the Municipal Association of South Carolina’s (MASC) Uptown publication, the city of Rock Hill used NMTC funding to help build a 1,000-acre mixed-use development with a velodrome -- an Olympic-style cycling center. The Uptown article quoted Rock Hill City Manager David Vehaun to explain how the NMTC loan works.

“That was divided into two parts,” Vehaun said of a $5 million NMTC loan Rock Hill received, “$1.2 million of which the city will pay interest only for seven years, after which the loan is forgiven; $3.8 million of which the city also pays interest for only seven years. After that, the loan is converted into a regular loan.”

The same article mentioned that the city of Spartanburg used $6 million in NMTC funds to help fund the construct of a new community center offering a community room, learning center, senior lounge, teen center, health and wellness room, gymnasium and outdoor pool. The article did not state how that loan was broken down between the forgivable and non-forgivable portions, only that there is “a seven-year holding period for the tax credits.” Also, Spartanburg used the NMTC funds in conjunction with other funding sources for its project, according to the MASC.

NMTC funds can only be used for qualifying projects in low-income communities. According to a publication from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, low-income communities are “any population census tract where (the) poverty rate … is at least 20 percent;” or:

• for a tract not located within a metropolitan area -- the median family income … does not exceed 80 percent of statewide median income; or

• for a track located within a metropolitan area -- the median family income … does not exceed 80 percent of statewide median income or the metropolitan area median family income.

A call to CDFI spokesperson Bill Luecht at the U.S. Treasury department seeking clarification on what the city of Camden’s NMTC obligation might be was not returned by deadline.

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