A Barter Theatre expansion in Mount Airy hasn’t gotten off the ground, or even been approved by state regulators, but plenty of drama is surrounding the proposed project nonetheless.
An ongoing “production” characterized by debates over Barter-related costs staged another act Thursday night, when the city Board of Commissioners approved amendments to the 2017-2018 municipal budget to provide $105,000 for financial-adviser and legal costs.
But that move was far from unanimous, producing three separate 3-2 votes on matters surrounding it, with commissioners Jim Armbrister and Jon Cawley the dissenters in each case. Armbrister and Cawley also voted against an agreement between the city and the Abingdon, Virginia-based Barter operation on March 1, to pave the way for its first-ever expansion outside that locale.
This was before a subcommittee of the state’s Local Government Commission — which must approve such projects requiring long-term bond or loan financing — pulled the curtain down by ruling that the plan posed too many financial risks to Mount Airy.
Since then, a city contingent including Commissioner Steve Yokeley and Mayor David Rowe has been making plans to re-approach the Local Government Commission for a second attempt at approval.
Thursday night’s action to provide money for the financial and legal services was part of that effort.
After the March 1 vote approving the pact with Barter Theatre officials, the city commissioners voted on two separate occasions to earmark a total of $100,000 to hire a financial adviser to assist Mount Airy with the funding aspects of the project.
Another proposed $100,000 allocation faced the council Thursday night, when City Manager Barbara Jones explained that earlier actions involving this sum called for the money to come from a loan officials planned to seek to construct the $13.5 million theatre.
With the loan financing, and the project itself, jeopardized by the Local Government Commission ruling in Raleigh on March 22, Thursday night’s action called for using money from the city’s general fund.
Regardless of the monetary source, commissioners Cawley and Armbrister criticized — and voted against — approving funding for the financial and legal services sought at Yokeley’s urging.
“We needed a financial adviser several months ago,” Yokeley said in indicating that the outcome with the state commission might have been different.
He also suggested that the adviser not be limited to the theatre plan.
“I think we need an individual to work on this year’s budget,” Yokeley said, “and to help on the Barter piece, also.”
“It could be money well spent,” agreed Mayor Rowe, who said Surry County officials have used a financial adviser to great advantage.
However, other commissioners, including Barter supporter Shirley Brinkley, questioned the duration of financial services provided. “Till death do us part?” Brinkley asked.
The city manager said the adviser would not only be part of the delegation that appears before the state commission, but assist Mount Airy through the borrowing phase of the Barter project if approval is given.
“It is to get you all the way through,” Jones explained, noting that this could extend to December or January. Discussion Thursday also indicated that the adviser could be on retainer to assist the municipality as needed.
This disclosure came after Cawley criticized the idea of paying someone for the two-month period leading to the passage of the city’s 2018-2019 budget before July 1.
“I mean, $100,000 for two months and we’re not batting an eye on it,” he said in describing this as nonsensical. “I think we’re on the verge of make-believe here.”
Cawley said the adviser probably would “tell us what we already know.”
He did not seem pleased with the idea of paying such a sum for the adviser for any length of time and said the city government should have some assurance of positive results.
“Is there any such thing as a guarantee?” Cawley asked of telling a financial adviser to get Mount Airy through the Local Government Commission process successfully and then he or she will be paid $100,000.
He further charged that such financial decisions by city officials are probably why the Barter project was rejected by the state group in the first place.
“Here we go again,” Cawley said.
Immediately after the 3-2 vote to fund the financial adviser component — supported by Yokeley, Brinkley and Commissioner Dean Brown — Armbrister made a motion that all materials to be presented to the state commission be provided to every board member, and the public, beforehand.
It failed, also in a 3-2 decision, but not before sparking an exchange between Armbrister and Yokeley.
“Who goes is really irrelevant,” Armbrister said of the upcoming trip to Raleigh.” All I’m asking for is the information that will represent us.”
“It’s a fair request,” Cawley said.
“I don’t know why there’s some hesitation,” Armbrister said after Yokeley seemed unsupportive of his motion.
“I’m not sure if it (the information) will be ready until just before we go,” Yokeley said of the return to the commission office, which had not been scheduled as of Thursday night.
“That’s fine with me,” Armbrister replied.
Yokeley said any materials to be offered by city officials should be available at that point. “But I don’t know about the other presenters.”
In addressing skepticism on the part of Armbrister, Yokeley said, “there will be no covert action.”
“Then turn it over,” Armbrister said of the information sought.
After Armbrister’s motion failed 3-2, the commissioners voted by the same margin to approve $5,000 to pay a lawyer to attend the next meeting with the state agency.
“We didn’t have an attorney before,” Yokeley said of the March 22 session.
He added that City Attorney Hugh Campbell knows a lawyer in Raleigh who is familiar with the Local Government Commission and can attend the next meeting with it on Mount Airy’s behalf.
Even before the lengthy debate on the financial and legal services funding, local citizen Paul Eich, a former mayoral candidate and frequent critic of city budget operations, expressed dismay over the process.
“I have concerns about the continuing expenses of the Barter Theatre,” Eich said during a public forum.
Eich said he was glad to see the Local Government Commission say “this is crazy” in response to the funding plans involved, but not happy about paying more money for the financial and legal services.
“I think it’s time to stop that.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.