After initially balking at the idea of paying additional money to a Charlotte attorney than he originally estimated to provide legal services for the Spencer’s redevelopment project, Mount Airy officials did just that.
This about-face occurred after a closed-door meeting between city leaders and the attorney, Mac McCarley of the Parker-Poe law firm.
McCarley’s legal relationship with the city dates to April 2016, when he contracted with Mount Airy to help facilitate the redevelopment of the former Spencer’s industrial property downtown which the municipality had bought in 2014.
When the contract was forged, McCarley estimated his services would cost the city a total of $37,500. This was based on an anticipated 100 hours of work at a rate of $375 per hour. McCarley is a recognized redevelopment expert who has handled 20 to 25 such projects in a public sector capacity.
However, City Manager Barbara Jones recently advised the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners and Mayor David Rowe that the expense had greatly exceeded the estimate. Jones reported that Mount Airy had paid McCarley’s legal firm $101,002 to date and had an unpaid invoice of $15,164 for work performed, bringing the total to $116,166 so far.
Then at a council meeting last Thursday night, Jones advised that another outstanding invoice in the $17,000 range for further services had been received from the firm on the heels of the bill for $15,164. The city manager said this did not include the cost of more unbilled work performed so far in November.
During their meeting, board members were asked to consider an amendment to the 2017-2018 municipal budget of $60,000 to cover the $15,164 invoice and later legal services required to complete the project, based on another estimate by McCarley.
After Commissioner Steve Yokeley made a motion to approve that amendment, no one else seconded it and under rules of parliamentary procedure the motion died.
However, the discussion just got started at that point, revealing concerns among board members about the costs of the legal services more than quadrupling the original estimate.
Commissioner Jon Cawley was the most vocal. He pointed out that McCarley had supplied the $37,500 total, and city officials relied on that due to the attorney’s reputation as an expert who had handled 20-plus projects.
“I would like to ask him to finish the job for monies billed,” Cawley suggested, acknowledging that the municipality needed to pay what is owed. “I would ask him that since he gave that ($37,500 figure) to begin with…to finish the job.”
Cawley said that was a reasonable request, considering the factors involved.
However, other officials were less hard-line, wondering out loud whether it was appropriate at this time to pull the funding plug on McCarley’s involvement with the Spencer’s project.
“Before we do this, we need to find out what’s left to be done,” Mayor David Rowe said. “We’re kind of in a hard place — we’re in the middle of the stream.”
Rowe said that in aborting the legal services funding, city officials would have to decide if they wanted to swim back to shore with the Spencer’s project or decide on another move.
In the Charlotte attorney’s defense, the mayor said city officials had asked McCarley to do additional things he didn’t know about when making his original estimate — without elaborating. But Rowe said one thing is for certain now.
“If we don’t pay him,” he said of McCarley, “I’d say he will quit.”
“Nobody’s going to work for nothing,” agreed Commissioner Shirley Brinkley, who asked if not approving the budget change would put the city in the position of deciding whether to move forward with the project in some other way — or stop.
“We need to find out what’s left to be done,” the mayor repeated, “and maybe make some other arrangements.”
Closed session turnaround
Commissioner Jim Armbrister offered a view similar to that of the mayor, saying the city government should pay what is owed and then meet with McCarley — “probably in closed session, I hate to say.”
And officials subsequently did just that, continuing a recent pattern in which most of the issues regarding the Spencer’s project have been discussed behind closed doors on the grounds of sensitive economic-development matters being involved.
After addressing the legal services with the lawyer in private, the commissioners adjourned to open session and held a formal vote — deciding 4-1 to approve the $60,000 budget amendment for the Spencer’s legal fees.
Cawley was the dissenter.
No information has surfaced regarding what was discussed during the closed session, but one official said afterward that the city really had no choice but to pay the extra sum at this point in the process.
Mayor Rowe said recently that despite some setbacks, the Spencer’s redevelopment was making progress.
One of those setbacks occurred in October when one of three developers eyeing space in the former industrial complex for new uses withdrew his participation.
The remaining two developers are seeking to use portions of the property for a four-star hotel/banquet center and upscale apartments.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.