Parks and Recreation Bond Referendum: Another Opportunity to Hinder Progress
23 February 2016
The Fayetteville City Council has agreed to place a parks and recreation bond referendum on the 15 March ballot. The $35 million made available by the bond would fund the following: 2 Senior Centers; Tennis Center; Sports Field Complex; 2 Skateboard Parks; Cape Fear River Park-Downtown Riverfront; Improvements to seven existing parks; 7 Splash Pads. Information is available that, I believe, explains why passage of this bond referendum is essential to the economic development and general progress of Fayetteville and the surrounding area. My fear is that, in spite of an abundance of information, this referendum will go the way of similar past efforts…it will fail.
By way of history, consider what Andrew Barksdale, Fayetteville Observer staff writer, wrote in an article titled “Fayetteville City Council revises bond package; senior centers approved, aquarium, multipurpose center axed:”
City voters since the 1980s have twice rejected parks and recreation bond issues. In 1986, they voted down an $8 million package by a margin of 51 percent to 49 percent. In 1990, city voters defeated three proposed bond issues totaling $11.55 million in parks and recreation improvements; each referendum was rejected by a more than 4 to 1 margin.
Barksdale gives more history in an article titled “Several former Fayetteville City Council members oppose parks bond.” Addressing a 5-5 Council vote in 2012 that ended efforts to put a $45 million parks referendum before citizens, Barksdale writes:
At the time, there was political infighting, questions about the scope and cost of the package, and worries the city didn’t have adequate policies to encourage local and minority-owned contractors to bid for the work.
The critical question is “Why do parks and recreation bond initiatives not get to the ballot, or fail when they do?” I hold that a quote attributed to former Fayetteville Mayor Bill Hurley in Barksdale’s article regarding the Council’s revised plan gives the primary answer to that question. Hurley said, “”I really don’t think the majority of the voters really know what’s going on.”
I totally agree with Bill Hurley. Consider the conversation going on in Fayetteville and Cumberland County. I constantly hear and read the outrage expressed by citizens who contend there should be more jobs in Fayetteville and the surrounding area. I saw it just a couple of weeks ago in a meeting of citizens to discuss removing the Market House from the Fayetteville City Seal. In a scolding tone, an attendee expressed his outrage to County Commissioner Charles Evans that jobs are not coming to our area. He asked, “Why is it all we can get is a chicken processing plant?” I was tempted to remind him we did not even get the chicken processing plant. I could not help but wonder what meaningful information has been provided to that gentleman regarding what attracts job-producing enterprises to an area.
As I have written before, we have become a society that for the most part only gives attention to sound-bites. That approach does not allow for gaining detailed information and processing it in a thoughtful manner. This condition is compounded by media, politicians, and others who bow at the altar of sound-bites; thereby, reinforcing development of public opinion and decision-making in a low-information atmosphere. The result is a public that often makes progress hindering, and even destructive, decisions.
The approach being used by the Fayetteville City Council to provide information to the public regarding the parks bond referendum is an example of what is described in the preceding paragraph. Consequently, many citizens do not understand the need for approving this bond package. In the “Former officials” article, Barksdale writes: “The city is spending $50,000 in tax money educating voters about the vote. The money includes $13,000 on radio spots; $4,000 on TV commercials; $9,000 on billboards; and $13,000 in various printed publications.” By my (Merritt’s) calculation, that total is $39 thousand. I do not know how the other $11 thousand will be spent. However, what I see here is attempting to pass information by sound-bites. Doing so does not prompt serious examination of the issue nor does it move a citizen toward thoughtful conclusions. The approach is used because this is what most citizens have been conditioned to employ in decision-making.
Interestingly, there is more detailed and persuasive information available. I stumbled onto some while working on an unrelated gardening project. That bond information appears on the City’s website. The link is http://fayettevillenc.gov/government/city-departments/parks-and-recreation/2016-parks-recreation-bond-referendum-copy. What is presented here covers: What; Why; Why Now; Cost; Funding Repayment; Referendum Process; Sustaining the Facilities; Property Tax Impact; and so on. Another helpful link is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeXbIrIiQAo. This link accesses a very informative video that gives even more detail than the link above.
Further, there is informative public discussion of this bond referendum. For instance, Russ Rogerson, executive director of the newly formed Fayetteville-Cumberland Development Corporation, was recently interviewed by Jeff “Goldy” Goldberg on WFNC Radio. Corporation board chair Jack Rostetter and vice-chair Andrew Pennick also participated. The discussion focused on what conditions make a city or area attractive to job-producing companies. The amenities that answer the question “what is there to do?” were very high on the listing of necessary conditions. There was full agreement that approval of the bond referendum would definitely make Fayetteville and our area far more competitive by way of amenities.
On the competitive front, every citizen of Fayetteville should look at the amenities offered by Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Go to www.cityofws.org and click on “Residents” then “Recreation.” Look at the offerings and compare them with Fayetteville. More importantly, on the homepage are three rotating banners. One says, “Track Progress of the 2014 Bonds.” Click on that banner and read about what is being done. Here is the opening paragraph:
In November 2014 city voters approved $139.2 million in general obligation bonds to finance unmet capital needs in the areas of public safety, recreation and parks, streets and sidewalks, economic development, and housing.
In 2014 Fayetteville had an estimated population of 200,582 while Winston-Salem was at 229,634. Fayetteville has $8.6 million in outstanding general obligation debt while Winston-Salem, in 2014, took on $139.2 million. Many Fayetteville citizens are opposing $35 million in spending while Winston-Salem is well on the way to completing $139.2 million in job-attracting actions. This is the competition and we better “wake-up” to what is required for economic development. Forming economic development entities and then tying their hands gets zero return or very near it.
The primary reason Fayetteville, Cumberland County, and the eight other municipalities in the county keep failing to attract quality jobs is obvious even to my untrained eye. There is a climate in which decisions are made solely on whether tax rates will increase. Limited focus is extremely dangerous in any decision-making process. On the bond matter, all the rest of what is discussed above is thrown to the wind. To see this point, one only has to read letters to the editor in the Fayetteville Observer. Couple this with the opposition raised by eight former Fayetteville City Council members as reported in Barksdale’s “Former Officials” article. As follows, he reports comments by Curtis Worthy who is chairman of the Vote No Bond Tax referendum committee:
Worthy said he and other committee members don’t oppose new parks and recreational amenities. Rather, he said, they oppose the estimated city tax increase of 1.35 cents per $100 for each $100 in tax value that would be needed to retire the general-obligation bond debt. “I think we can pay as we can,” Worthy said. “It creates a better method of accomplishing the same thing instead of borrowing a bunch of money.”
The fact of life is sound-bites and limited focus do not inform. They only stir emotions and almost always lead to wrong and costly decisions. I beg the leaders of this city and area to move beyond sound-bites and limited focus regarding this bond referendum and other important issues of our time. On the other hand, citizens must invest the time and effort required to get informed. Please, decide this matter based on thorough and thoughtful examination of the facts.