SNOW HILL – A motion to cancel the contract to purchase land for a sports complex near Berlin failed with a 3-4 vote after a heated discussion among the Worcester County Commissioners this week.
A motion by Commissioner Chip Bertino to cancel the contract to purchase 95 acres adjacent to Stephen Decatur High School failed on Tuesday. Bertino made the motion after pointing out the bond bill that was intended to fund the purchase of the property actually couldn’t be used for acquisition.
“The fact is we don’t have money to pay for a piece of property we’re under contract for,” Bertino said.
At the close of Tuesday’s meeting, Bertino advised his peers that the petition that aims to have voters decide if bond money should be used to fund a sports complex had been turned in and was expected to have enough valid signatures. With the issue likely headed to referendum in November, he asked if that was essentially moot since the bond bill approved earlier this year did not state that the bond funds could be used for acquisition of the sports complex site.
“The language in the resolution to bond the sports complex does not include the word acquire or acquisition for the land,” he said. “Is that a problem and in that case is the resolution valid to enable us to go to the bond market to use the money to purchase the land that is currently under contract?”
Chief Administrative Officer Weston Young confirmed that the county could not use the bond funds to acquire the property. He said the bond resolution was drafted based on the county’s capital improvement plan, which originally showed the purchase being made with grant funds. He added that fact did not make the referendum question moot, however, because it would give voters a say on whether the county could use bond proceeds for the engineering, development and design of the sports complex.
Bertino asked how the county was going to acquire the land if it wasn’t going to use bond funds.
“You all would have to vote on a different funding source or push the contract back,” Young said. “Even if we extended the contract, we’d still need to choose a different funding source. Even if the bond bill is able to be used it’s only able to be used for development. It does not include acquisition.”
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said the proposed settlement date was at the end of September and that officials could work on identifying funding between now and then. Bertino said the input the public had provided during the process thus far had related to the county’s use of bond funding for the project.
Mitrecic said that nevertheless, input at the public hearing in April showed that a majority, 3 to 2, supported a sports complex.
“No it was half and half,” Bertino said.
“It was not,” Mitrecic retorted.
Bertino maintained that either way, the county didn’t have the money to pay for a piece of property it now had under contract.
“We have plenty of money to pay for it,” Mitrecic said.
Bertino pointed out that there was no vote to do that, however.
“You’re both correct,” Young said. “We have money that we can use to buy it. We have not identified any pot of money to buy it.”
Mitrecic stressed that the settlement date could be extended if necessary. Bertino suggested that at this point, a referendum in November was moot unless the commissioners intended to honor the will of the public regarding its results.
“If the vote comes in that the voters do not want to use the bond money to purchase the land, which we can’t do anyway, but if it is overwhelmingly against doing that, are you saying then you’re going to take that vote as an indication as to how the public feels about going forward with the sports complex?” Bertino asked.
Mitrecic, criticizing the manner in which some of the signatures had been obtained, said there were various reasons associated with people signing the petition, not simply the fact that bond funding had been proposed to pay for it.
“It was about a multitude of things that worked in the favor of the petitioners,” he said.
Bertino asked again if Mitrecic would accept the fact the community didn’t want the sports complex if the November referendum question regarding the bond funding failed to pass.
“I’m not going to extrapolate the fact they don’t want the sports complex … I’m going to extrapolate the fact they’re afraid their taxes are going to go up,” he said.
Commissioner Jim Bunting said he and Bertino weren’t against the idea of a complex but felt the county shouldn’t be involved.
“Let a private entity come in,” he said.
Commissioner Diana Purnell said it was disgusting and embarrassing that members of the petition group had visited her neighborhood during the Berlin Memorial Day Parade. She said their primary talking point was that the sports complex would make taxes go up.
“You had people come to the Memorial Day Parade in the middle of a black community with a cardboard placard on their backs…,” she said.
Purnell said she’d supported projects in her fellow commissioners’ districts for the good of the county.
“You came into our community, a community that has not asked the county for one red dime to do major projects that would bring in sustained economic development. Not one,” she said. “And they walk through with a cardboard placard. Couldn’t even be decent enough to get one printed that would look like something. With a cardboard placard on their back collecting signatures. That to me is disgraceful. I never would do that to either one of you.”
Bertino, attempting to say that he had nothing to do with the petition gathering, was cut off by Purnell.
“As the only minority sitting on this commission up here, I’m telling you this referendum and your attitude about the funds that was used on Lewis Road, it gave me a whole different view of who you were and what you’re about,” she said. “And that is not good for any of us. When I stand up here, I vote for things for this county, not for race or anything else. It’s the county. We’ve got to see the county grow. For me, whether we get it or not, it’s the attitude of us as commissioners and working together.”
She said she was disappointed.
“I tell you what we’re going to work through this,” she said. “I don’t like having people coming in my district carrying water for other people. That one day that ticked me off to no end. It wasn’t necessary.”
Bertino said his objection to the Lewis Road project — which extended sewer service to Lewis Road homes — was not because of the project but rather because the residents there were getting to hook up for free, something that was not permitted elsewhere in the county.
“My objection to Lewis Road had everything to do with economics because it wasn’t fair that other locations, service areas, were paying for their connections and this service area they were not,” he said. “To read anything more into that Diana I think is grossly unfair.”
Commissioner Ted Elder said he’d talked to people on Flower Street who were opposed to the sports complex.
“I’m going to tell you straight up the people I talked to around your area did not want the sports complex,” he said.
He added that he’d supported the extension of sewer to Lewis Road but not the fact that residents wouldn’t have to pay for it.
“I’ve got the highest priced water and sewer in the whole county is right down here in my district and nobody was willing to do anything to help alleviate that,” he said. “They’re higher right now than any other district. None of them had free hookups.”
Purnell said bringing sewer to Lewis Road had taken 20 years.
“My thing is what is the problem with putting things in a black community,” she said.
Mitrecic ended the discussion.
“This has gone way too far,” he said.
He added that the county needed economic development if residents didn’t want taxes to go up.
“The people of Worcester County are going to look at tax increases for the rest of their lives unless we find some way to offset that with economic development throughout the county,” he said.
Commissioner Bud Church, a longtime proponent of the project, spoke in support of a sports complex.
“In my mind it’s something we ought to do, should do,” he said. “It’s a win win for the community and the kids.”
The motion made by Bertino to cancel the contract for the property next to Stephen Decatur High School failed with a 3-4 vote. Bertino, Bunting and Elder voted in support while Mitrecic, Purnell, Church and Commissioner Josh Nordstrom were opposed. It was the same vote that allowed the bond to move ahead after a public hearing in April.