Money talks

Council sank to a new low Wednesday night in its decision to sell 523 E. Nancy OatesFranklin St. to the UNC College of Arts & Sciences Foundation, not because of who council sold it to but why. The foundation’s bid was the lowest and the only one of the three bids that would keep the property off the tax rolls. The foundation plans to rezone the historic building to use it for offices.

The shame came in most council members caving to opposition from a handful of wealthy neighbors, people who can and do give to local political campaigns.

Goodness knows, Matt Czajkowski tried to point out to his colleagues what they were doing — nearly every real estate project that comes before council has some neighborhood objection — and he even tried to broker a “good neighbor plan” such as IFC has with the neighbors of its planned shelter on Homestead Road. But the historic district residents would have none of it.

Czajkowski also challenged the town overspending taxpayer money on a broker commission. The town agreed to sell the building to Preservation North Carolina who agreed to re-sell it to whomever the council designated. When the building was assessed at $747,000, PNC said it would take a commission of $5,000. But when bids came in more than twice that high, PNC got dollar signs in its eyes and upped its commission to 2.5 percent, which, had the building gone to the highest bidder, would have been $45,000.

Think of what that extra $40,000 would mean to the town, Czajkowski said. Some years back, Council said it couldn’t afford to spend $30,000 to keep the Chapel Hill Museum open when it rented that building. And last month, Empowerment came begging for $50,000, which council authorized Roger Stancil to take from somewhere else in the budget. But other council members, flush with the prospect of getting so much more for the building than they originally thought, acted as though they’d won the pot in Vegas and suddenly turned into big tippers.

Finally, Czajkowski pointed out that the difference between the highest bid — Chabad’s $1.8 million, plus paying property taxes on its new value after renovation — and the foundation’s $1.25 million was equivalent to a 1-cent tax rate increase. But the die was cast before the meeting even began. The only emails in council members’ packets were from foundation supporters. When one woman in the audience who supported another bid said her email was not included, Mark Kleinschmidt tried to brush her off saying those were late submissions, but he was left with egg on his face when she said the other emails had been sent in before hers.

Donna Bell, who called for a vote before discussion, totally missing the point that a discussion allows room for people to learn and change their minds, washed her hands of the mess and said at the get-go she wouldn’t make a choice but would vote with the council majority. In the end, having done all he could to save taxpayers money and council members their reputations, Czajkowski voted with the majority, too. There is only so much one man can do.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Fred Black

     /  July 7, 2014

    The deal from the UNC Arts and Sciences Foundation includes a one-time payment of $475,000 to the town instead of paying annual property taxes.

    Do you really believe that individual campaign donations drive the decisions made by Council members?

  2. Nancy

     /  July 7, 2014

    Fred — I believe Matt Czajkowski is the only council member willing to push back and negotiate the best deal for the town against wealthy neighbors, developers and the university who aggressively lobby for their own interests. And he appears to be the only council member with the fortitude to continue to stand up for the best interests of the community, even when it makes people used to getting their way mad at him.

  3. Fred Black

     /  July 7, 2014

    Thanks Nancy, but that wasn’t the question! Hmmm, how again did he vote?

  4. many

     /  July 7, 2014

    Let’s see; if $1.25 million equals a 1 penny tax unit then $425,000 is about one third of a penny. So not only did Chapel Hill forego $550,000 dollars on the price (a sum on third greater than the one-time-tax payment), but the town also agreed to forgo taxing the property in perpetuity. Nice.

    …..and the reasoning was? I am still flabbergasted by the lack of discussion. Really folks, shouldn’t the town leadership and financial staff have to “show their work” when they make decision like this?

    I did not even get the impression the issue was town vs. wealthy neighbors.

    No doubt that the University will do a good job with the property and that it is a reasonable (probably not the best) use of the property. However, the University gets what ever the University wants in Chapel Hill regardless of the circumstances.

    Those connected with the University have a greater influence over what happens in Chapel Hill than the rest of us and this juggernaut long ago got past.point where people even have to explain their reasoning.

    How does that economic development thing work again?

  5. many

     /  July 7, 2014

    Correction: the 550K is equivalent to a one cent tax increase. Even worse.

  6. Don Evans

     /  July 7, 2014

    Donna Bell didn’t even want to talk about it? Worst. Council. Member. Ever.?

  7. Bruce Springsteen

     /  July 8, 2014

    I especially like the implication that the resignation might be because of an ambition to run for Mayor. His house in CH had sold weeks before and he was only a few days from closing on a a condo in Manhattan.

  8. many

     /  July 8, 2014

    Right. Like action figures, each one sold separately.

    The point is that we’ll never know. There might have been good reason to make the choice they did, or perhaps it is true indifference to other pressing problems.

    Meanwhile; NC Leg is cutting funding to schools, Chapel Hill is rushing projects in the name of economic development and there are many other pressing capital expenditures.

    That is why the decision makes no sense to me.

    Ex animo.

  9. Del Snow

     /  July 8, 2014

    I can sympathize with possibly being burnt out from sitting on Council, but wouldn’t the ethical reaction be for Donna to resign?

  10. Fred Black

     /  July 8, 2014

    From the WCHL story:

    It seemed that everyone who squeezed into tiny Meeting Room C of the Chapel Hill Public Library on Wednesday evening had already spoken their minds about the sale of the old public library, a little more than one-and-a-half miles away on East Franklin Street.

    “Is there anyone here today,” asked Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt, “who wasn’t able to provide comments, orally, to the council at a previous meeting on this issue, who would like to speak today?”

    That was followed several seconds of silence.

    “Well, thank you very much,” the Mayor concluded, to laughter all around.

  11. Fred Black

     /  July 8, 2014

    Bell resign? What is the ethical problem Del?

  12. DOM

     /  July 8, 2014

    Del Snow –

    “…wouldn’t the ethical reaction be for Donna to resign?”

    Rather ironic coming from someone whom many recommended resigning after her seemingly biased and conflictive behavior while serving as Chair of the Planning Board — and who chose to be a party in the lawsuit against the town after the Charterwood development had been approved in her neighborhood. How many thousands of dollars did that fiasco cost us, the taxpayers?

  13. Don Evans

     /  July 8, 2014

    Ethical problem? Really? Bell doesn’t want to listen to residents when her job is to listen to residents. I’d say it’s a big ethical problem when she sits on the board and doesn’t want to do the work.

    You got a nerve chucking the bias and conflictive labels. The Central-West boondoggle and the wasted tax dollars meant nothing to you? Oh, I forgot, you had a dog in that fight, didn’t you?

  14. Fred Black

     /  July 8, 2014

    Don, which residents didn’t she want to listen to? Were you there that evening? What am I missing, given the mayor indicated that no one asked to speak.

  15. Nancy

     /  July 8, 2014

    Fred — I was there. When Matt Czajkowski questioned PNC’s $40K bump in commission, Donna Bell jumped in and said, essentially, Let’s vote first and see whether anyone else objects, and if not, there’s no need for a discussion. So Mark Kleinschmidt did a straw poll, and it was not 8-1, so he allowed discussion to proceed. Then after Lee Storrow said who he supported and why prior to the vote on whom to sell to, Donna said she’d vote with the majority. She said a bit more than that, but she was speaking very softly and neither I nor the people around me caught all that she said, other than she would cast her vote with the majority.

    Certainly council has been known to talk a thing to death, but I prefer that rather than quick decisions that leave taxpayers wondering whether council has the community’s best interests at heart.

  16. Fred Black

     /  July 8, 2014

    Nancy, so how is that not listening to residents? Were these not the mayor and council members? So again, why is this cause to resign?

  17. many

     /  July 8, 2014

    The job is not just simply “listening to residents”, and you know that is true Mr. Black.

    The job is making informed decisions that are in the interests of the community at large and communicating those decisions.

    Both entail detailing the process of critical thinking behind decisions, however unpopular that reasoning is, not just shutting down conversation and calling for a vote.

    What transpired at that meeting was very poor example of representative government. The Chapel Hill city council and hizhonor should be ashamed, not by their decision as much as their cowardice.

  18. Ph. Sledge

     /  July 9, 2014

    It is no surprise to me that Matt was the only council member who made any attempt at fiscal responsibility. When the museum was forced to close because it could no longer afford to maintain the town’s problem ridden structure and could no longer find private donors to fund the repair of crushed heat vents that has been taking on ground water since 2000, et al, Matt was the only councilmember who regularly met with the Museum community. He actually took the Museum’s quarterly measurable standard reports seriously. They detailed over six years of carefully documented issues with the building—making it abundantly clear to Roger and his merry men that what had been a town asset and a property of historical pride was sliding precariously into what would ultimately be a huge fiscal loss to the town’s coffers. Neglect of their own property and the cries for help that fell on deaf ears lost the building and the sizeable revenue it could have provided had it been maintained. Just as a reminder…when the museum’s board let council know that it was costing thousands of dollars per month to keep the lights and heat on Donna Bell snidely suggested they have a bake sale.