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Bond issue gets unanimous vote after long argument
City Council members unanimously approved a $10.75 million bond issue Tuesday night that will finance improvements to Fredericksburg’s sewer system and land acquisition for the proposed riverfront park downtown.
But you wouldn’t have thought the vote would be 7-0 if you listened to the debate.
City Councilwoman Debby Girvan, who abstained from taking the first of two required votes on this measure two weeks ago, said she didn’t think it was responsible for the city to borrow money to buy land when it has not yet negotiated a purchase agreement with the two owners of that land.
The city recently struck a deal to buy land that Tommy Mitchell owns on Sophia Street, and it wants to buy a retail building owned by Franklin Liebenow, as well as the Wings on the Water property, to build what is envisioned as the first phase of a city-wide riverfront park at the end of Charlotte Street. (background here)
Of the $10.75 million the city intends to borrow, $2.5 million of that would go toward buying riverfront land from those two owners. The total cost of building the park, including the land buys, is expected to be more than $7 million.
Girvan made a substitute motion to take the $2.5 million for the riverfront land out of the bond issue, but nobody seconded it, so it died.
“I support the river park project, and I support this land acquisition,” Girvan said, “but I think there is some more work to be done on those negotiations, and I do think it’s more responsible to borrow the money” when purchase agreements are in place.
Vice Mayor Kerry Devine didn’t buy that argument.
“I think it’s a little disingenuous to say, ‘I support it, but I don’t support the funding,’” she said. “There is no moving forward on this project if we don’t have the funds to do so. … I think it’s a little bit ridiculous to be in negotiations if we don’t have the ability to follow through. That’s what this allows us to do.”
Girvan asked city staff members whether the city could just wait until it negotiates an agreement, ask for a long period of time to close on the contract and then borrow money to buy the land.
Assistant City Manager Beverly Cameron said the city incurs fees each time it borrows money. When it borrows, it immediately starts earning interest on money it has not spent. The interest rate the money earns when it is sitting in the bank is often higher than the rate the city pays in debt service on that money, he said, so the city could come out ahead financially, it just has to spend 85 percent of the borrowed money within three years.
When Girvan continued to ask Cameron about how the bonds could be restructured, George Solley broke in, saying, “I would suggest that if council members need a tutorial on certain aspects of business, that they could do that directly with staff at any time.”
He said anyone against the funding should make that known with their vote.
“This is not a tutorial. I did spend a great deal of time today with the city manager as well as [Budget Manager Mark] Whitley,” Girvan said. “Asking questions is a part of our job, and should be encouraged, not discouraged. I would like to see more council members ask some questions around this horseshoe in a public setting.”
In the end, Girvan joined the rest of the council in voting for the bond issue. She said after the meeting that she knows the city has no choice but to upgrade its sewer facilities, she supports the riverfront park “in principle,” and that since she could not get a motion on the table to delay the borrowing for the river portion of the project, she didn’t feel that a no vote was an option.