By Scott D. Yost
Tempers have been flaring in the heated back and forth between Guilford County commissioners and High Point officials over a proposed baseball stadium for downtown High Point. But this week there was a new wrinkle: The project had some county commissioners fuming at their own staff.
The fireworks started early at the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Thursday, Sept. 7 meeting when the commissioners were debating whether to set a public hearing to get input on the project that would use $45 million in public money to fund a stadium and land purchases in the effort to revitalize High Point’s downtown.
The commissioners voted 7 to 2 to hold the public hearing at the board’s next meeting, Thursday, Sept. 21, but it’s still anyone’s guess whether the board will approve county financing for the project in the form of tax revenue sharing over the next 20 years.
High Point officials argue that the project will bring a great deal of economic development to downtown High Point and therefore increase property values in the area, and they say the county should use almost all of Guilford County’s increased tax revenue for about two decades to help repay the cost of building the stadium. However, the commissioners have been asking a lot of questions and some commissioners have been dissatisfied with the answers.
At the Sept. 7 meeting, Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad blasted County Manager Marty Lawing about a Tuesday, Sept. 5 email from Guilford County Tax Director Ben Chavis regarding the values of properties that would be used to generate the revenue to pay for the stadium project.
There are about 1,050 pieces of property in a 649-acre “stadium influence zone” that would form the tax base used to calculate future revenues. The list of property values included a host of valuable nontaxable properties, owned by governments, churches, nonprofits and other buildings, including the county’s courthouse and jail in High Point. It also included some mystery properties with no names or addresss and some where large values were listed in 2008 but a value of $0 was listed for 2012 and subsequent years.
The commissioners said the inclusion of those properties skewed the numbers in two ways: It exaggerated the declines in tax revenue from that area over the years and it also overstated the amount of revenue that could be generated from the area.
“There were 121 properties that were included that shouldn’t have been,” Conrad said sternly at the meeting. “When you put a spreadsheet out and you show a property value decrease of 19 percent, that number is not even close. Why was that sent to this board? Why was that sent to this board in that fashion?”
Lawing looked very uncomfortable as Conrad chastised him and the Tax Department.
“I’ll apologize for that,” Lawing said. “There was a misunderstanding.”
“I’m not trying to beat you up,” Conrad said, “but when I look on here and see First Baptist Church of High Point – are we charging them property taxes? I don’t think we’re charging them. We have our own property, the Russell Street building, on here.”
On the matter of the public hearing, Conrad had a biting remark for High Point officials who were at the meeting to show their support for the stadium plan. One of the criticisms has been that the High Point City Council didn’t hold a public hearing on the matter.
“I wholeheartedly agree that the citizens of High Point should have an opportunity,” Conrad said. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that opportunity should have come from the City of High Point.”
Commissioner Hank Henning was even more critical of Lawing and Chavis when he spoke on the list.
“I kept on looking this over,” Henning said at the meeting. “I had a couple of conversations with the commissioners and I said, ‘This can’t be right; there’s no way that something this egregious could go out to a board, something that is this sloppy.’”
Henning said everyone had been talking about a loss of a quarter billion dollars in property value in downtown High Point since 2008, but he said it really was much less than that.
“That number is completely fictitious,” Henning said. “It doesn’t exist. When you take off the public buildings, it’s about $150 million.”
Commissioner Skip Alston tried to call off the dogs. He jumped in and said this wasn’t the time to chastise county staff since the motion on the floor pertained to a public hearing request, but his rescue attempt failed. (The five-time former chairman of that board said later that it was his “chairman’s instinct” kicking in.)
Henning continued undaunted: “I’ve been trying to get to yes on this thing and I’ve just been asking for facts. I’m not going to beat up on the City of High Point. I mean, the lack of initiative from our staff to get the numbers right is pathetic. And here we are – they want a decision from us and we can’t give them one because the numbers that they are using to start this whole conversation are wrong. This is completely unacceptable.”
Lawing apologized again.
“I understand and I agree, and I apologize for that,” he said.
Commissioner Kay Cashion has been publicly positive about the High Point project but at the meeting she, like other commissioners, expressed her wish that High Point had held a public hearing – since the county was being asked to hold one to move the process forward.
“I wish the City of High Point had held a public hearing for the citizens of High Point months ago, or some time ago,” Cashion said.
Commissioner Alan Branson had strong words for High Point officials. He said he was “somewhat disgusted” with some comments made about the commissioners by High Point leaders.
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips said of the public hearing request: “It was, frankly, a strange request given that the citizens of High Point have not yet been heard from by their City Council … I will not vote in favor of this [holding a public hearing]. I do not believe it is appropriate for us to get involved at this time.”
Conrad said this week he still wasn’t getting any satisfactory answers from High Point.
“How do you not know this – and what else don’t you know about this project?” he asked.
He said some of the mistakes were “clearly obvious” and were ones he was able to see with a cursory review of the spreadsheet. He said it drastically skews the numbers and makes a huge difference.
“This is not politics, it’s math,” Conrad said.
This week Henning said that, given the ineptitude in this case, there was nothing wrong with commissioners pointing out those mistakes at a public meeting.
“We shouldn’t be having to do staff’s work for them,” Henning said.
He said the commissioners are often portrayed in a negative light because they want to do their due diligence on the project, but he added that the only thing the commissioners are doing is asking legitimate questions.
“Asking questions does not mean we are trying to kill it,” Henning said of the stadium proposal.
He said the way the board is being rushed along with the obvious lack of vetting by High Point staff and county staff means the county commissioners have to dig deeper before making a decision.
“We’re not getting the real numbers so we don’t know,” Henning said. “I don’t know that any data I’ve been given is correct.”
He also said that it’s been hard to get straight answers.
“It’s like you are buying a house and they drive you by the entrance and say, ‘Well, there it is; you’ve seen enough – now buy it.’”
Henning said that for months High Point said it was asking for one financing method from the county but, when the formal request finally came to the board, a different funding process was being asked for.
“First they’re playing fast and lose with the language and then they come to us and say, ‘Oh by the way, that financing method that we’ve been talking about for eight months – well, it’s something else,” Henning said.
He said that change and other issues make it seem as though High Point is “flying by the seat of their pants.”
High Point officials say they have been working to answer the questions and to address concerns the county commissioners have had in recent days. High Point Mayor Bill Bencini said this week that the county commissioners appear to be moving the goal posts because, every time the city addresses one concern, the commissioners bring up more questions.
Bencini said the City of High Point is now planning to hold a public hearing on the project on Monday, Sept. 18. The mayor said that, while the High Point City Council hadn’t held a formal public hearing on the matter before, it had provided many, many opportunities for citizens to offer their thoughts on the proposed downtown economic development initiative.
“We have had so many opportunities for the public to express their opinion,” Bencini said. “We’ve had multiple meetings.”
He said councilmembers heard from citizens at a YMCA in High Point, at civic clubs, during speakers from the floor at City Council meetings and at other times as well.
High Point’s mayor also spoke to a concern Alston raised recently: That the City Council hadn’t formally voted to make the request for the revenue sharing agreement with the county. Bencini said an April vote by the High Point City Council to move the baseball project forward empowered city staff to make the request of Guilford County. Bencini also said there was no question the High Point City Council was overwhelmingly behind the stadium.
The project is widely endorsed by the High Point business community; however, there are opponents. One of the most outspoken critics of the public financing for the stadium is High Point City Councilmember Cynthia Davis.
Davis must be a thorn in the side of Bencini and other city leaders on this issue, because, every time they show up to promote the project to the commissioners, Davis is there raising questions. Bencini comes before the board and extolls the benefits of the plan – as he did during speakers from the floor at the Board of Commissioners’ Sept. 7 meeting – and then Davis expresses her opposition to the financing proposal.
At a county commissioners’ work session held last month, Davis sat in the audience and said, “Hear, hear,” every time a commissioner expressed a concern, and, at the Sept. 7 commissioners meeting, she spoke against public financing for the project as well.
”The individuals that I represent inside the City of High Point do not have a problem with the stadium,” she said. “They are concerned with the financing being public dollars.”
Project opponents from High Point and Colfax spoke on the risk to city and county taxpayers, the questionable draw of baseball teams and other concerns.
High Point’s efforts to address commissioner requests regarding the project have at times reached comic proportions. For instance, one complaint the commissioners expressed last month was that it was hard to tell the exact nature of the 649-acre area of land that’s proposed to form the base area for the tax revenue sharing plan. They said the street names on a map they saw were hard to read. So the mayor of High Point showed up at the Sept. 7 commissioners meeting with a stack of giant maps with clearly marked street names in a large font, and High Point staff handed the maps out to the commissioners while Bencini spoke.
The Sept. 7 commissioners meeting came one night after a giant pep rally and progress report was held at the Hayworth Fine Arts Center at High Point University. It was a big show, one with a great deal of substance to it as well. If it were a magic show the event would have been what’s known as “the big reveal.”
High Point University President Nido Qubein named the team that would be coming if a stadium is built and introduced developers with intentions to build if the stadium became a reality. He also revealed that, rather than the $38 million he’d committed to raise in private funds earlier this year for development of the area, he had actually raised $50 million.
At times in recent weeks it has appeared as though Bencini and Qubein have been using the good cop, bad cop routine with the commissioners. Bencini made it known in terse and in no uncertain terms why Guilford County needed to support a proposed High Point downtown revitalization effort while Qubein made the board honored guests at an impressive presentation at High Point University, where he said he wanted to “lovingly” point out the importance of the county’s participation.
The good cop, bad cop method works well in movies when it comes to extracting information from suspects, but it’s still up in the air as to whether that same technique will work for the City of High Point when it comes to extracting $11.1 million in future tax revenue from Guilford County.
Days before the High Point presentation, Lawing had, on behalf of the county commissioners, sent an email to High Point City Manager Greg Demko that contained eight questions Guilford County commissioners had about the project.
Here are some of the questions commissioners asked.
• “If the new development in the target area does not materialize as projected, how will the City cover the deficit in revenue vs. the annual debt service requirement? Be specific as to the source of funding and your back up plan.”
• “Explain in detail why Guilford County’s participation is crucial to the success of the project. Some think the city has the fiscal capacity to obtain approval to issue $35 million without county participation.”
• “What factors are driving city’s the project schedule? (LGC [Local Government Commission] calendar, Opening Day for 2019 Baseball season, etc.)”
• “The proponents of the project have said ‘The County has nothing to lose by supporting the project.’ Can you summarize what is meant by this statement?”
There were also questions about the tax revenue projections used in High Point’s calculations of future estimated tax revenues, one about the specific tax-exempt status of a nonprofit that will construct a proposed children’s museum, events center and park.
Demko responded on Thursday, Sept. 7, the morning after Qubein’s presentation.
“In light of Dr. Qubein’s presentation last night attended by six of the nine Commissioners and you, we think the questions posed to our leadership a few days ago have been thoroughly addressed. The project will not fail, and we expect to have significant new tax revenues from development like the stated commitments. …”
Demko also wrote, “based on our discussions with private developers and our very conservative projections, we have every reason to believe that this project will exceed our expectations.”
High Point’s city manager also pointed out that Guilford County and High Point joined forces two years ago to for the Guilford County Economic Development Alliance and worked together on many economic development endeavors. Demko wrote, “County participation is not only crucial to make the multi-use stadium pay for itself as projected – it represents continued commitment to the City’s and County’s economic future.”
As for why Guilford County has nothing to lose, Demko wrote that current county tax revenues wouldn’t be used in the funding.
“What the County does have to lose is a continued decline in their tax base,” he wrote. “Without the catalyst project, this new development will not occur, and property values are anticipated to continue to deteriorate.”
Henning also said that Demko’s letter glossed over many questions.
“It’s not up to me to play the scavenger hunt game, “ Henning said. “It’s their job.”
Both Bencini and Qubein have said Guilford County’s funding is a critical part of the project. Several commissioners said the hospitality shown by Qubein at the High Point University event was impressive but it does not mitigate the fact that there are still unanswered questions. Branson said that event was “absolutely fantastic” but he still had questions.
Last week, Alston said he was “50-50” on the project. This week, when asked, he said, “I’m still 50-50.”
Alston said High Point wanted the commissioners to hurry up and vote by Sept. 21 on the matter but he said he did not want to vote that soon.
“I don’t think we’re going to vote,” Alston said. “I wouldn’t be prepared to vote for it then.”
He said High Point has been telling the county a lot about High Point’s timeline, but Alston said one problem with that is the county is on its own timeline, not High Point’s. He said that High Point officials had sent a preliminary financing plan to the state that simply assumed Guilford County would go along.
Demko said High Point needs to get shovels in the ground soon to have the stadium ready by April 2019. He said it made no sense to have a giant asset like that sit idle for much of 2019 and miss an entire season once an investment had been made.
Alston and Phillips said one consideration is that if Guilford County does this for High Point, other local governments in the county will come asking for the same type of deal.
Branson said it’s possible Guilford County and High Point may reach a deal that meets in the middle. He said that he has been “trying to find some common ground.”
Branson said at least now the county commissioners have maps they can read.
“Finally we have a map,” he said of the giant ones High Point staff had given the commissioners.