Mount Airy’s elected leaders arguably are witnessing a period of unprecedented citizen unrest, fueled by a recent 25-percent property tax increase, secrecy surrounding the Spencer’s redevelopment project, various spending decisions and more.
But a cross-section of local residents are not taking this lying down and instead have reacted by forming a group called Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy.
“We feel that we are at a crucial point in our city and if we do not slow down the spending and bring common sense back, we are going to be paying the price for a long, long time,” Gene Clark, the treasurer of the new group, explained in a statement.
Clark, a local businessman who has run for mayor and city commissioner in the past, added that the group seeks to address “issues plaguing our city council.” He regularly attends meetings of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners and often comments on taxation and other matters during the public-forum periods at each.
“Over the last two to three years, we have dealt with many situations where the city commissioners have not been forthcoming (with) information regarding development costs, project overruns, conflicts of interest, lack of fiscal responsibility with the taxpayers’ money and following the laws as set forth by the state of North Carolina.”
Clark said Monday that Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy is made up of about 15 like-minded individuals who are concerned about the direction the city government is headed.
“We just want to get the facts out about what they should be telling everybody,” he said of certain municipal officials. “We have a majority of commissioners who we believe have not been as transparent and forthcoming as we would expect.”
Clark, the president of a local company called My Home Furnishings, says the members of Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy also include bankers, medical professionals, retirees and others.
“It’s a pretty good cross-section,” he said of the group’s makeup that contains a number of persons living north of West Lebanon Street. “Most of them are on the north side of town.”
The new group is divided into “spokes” to address various areas of concern, according to its treasurer.
Clark declined to identify others involved with Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy. The reason for this, he indicated, is some have business and other relationships with the powers that be and fear retribution if they do something to go against the grain.
“We’re trying to give a voice to those people who need to be heard,” providing a way for citizens with valid concerns to make those known, Clark said. “But we also understand the politics of the situation.”
As a person without ties or allegiance to city government, Clark said he harbors no such fears. “I’m willing to stand up, because there’s not a whole lot they can do to me.”
The group will not be holding meetings, but communicating through emails.
Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy also plans to run a series of newspaper ads to inform citizens about its mission. Clark said donations are helping to make this possible, with more than $1,000 raised over the course of about three days. “We have gotten a very, very good response.”
Anyone who would like to support or obtain more information about the committee can do so at firstname.lastname@example.org or 336-520-9668.
Issues of concern
Some of the concerns the new group’s members have with city government date to 2014, when it purchased the former Spencer’s Inc. textile-manufacturing complex downtown using a secret bidder.
Mount Airy officials then appointed a redevelopment commission to guide the process of finding new uses for the property, which generated controversy by looking beyond the Spencer’s site and including nearby businesses in its plans that some viewed as threatening.
The commission was dissolved in early 2016. But Clark believes elements of it are still in place and remain just as aggressive about what they want to see happen with the Spencer’s property, including a possible Barter Theatre expansion there.
“When they want something, they go after it,” he said of the nature of those involved, which members of the new group seek to match. “We realized we need to be organized, too.”
The Spencer’s project is a key concern overall of Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy.
“We want them to reevaluate their position on being in the redevelopment business,” Clark said of city officials. “They don’t need to be owning a lot of property.”
The group also advocates municipal leaders using taxpayer funds more wisely, including money going toward the Spencer’s project.
“The spending is out of control,” Clark said, citing thousands of dollars devoted to legal costs, financial adviser and other expenses linked to the redevelopment. “There’s nobody watching the store.”
Group members further are bothered by secrecy that has surrounded the Spencer’s plans, especially recent efforts to bring the Barter Theatre to town which have become mired in controversy over financial and other aspects.
Even Commissioners Jim Armbrister and Jon Cawley have complained about not being informed of details surrounding the Barter.
Clark says this shows that key facts not only haven’t been shared during public meetings but also closed sessions in which Armbrister and Cawley would be privy to such information.
“So where has it been discussed?”
Clark said the secret dealings surrounding the Barter reflect another major goal of the new group, to weigh city actions against state statutes. He contends that the lack of information presented about the theater, for example, is a violation of the North Carolina Open Meetings Law.
Citizens for a Transparent Mount Airy also is taking issue with how a recent hike in city property taxes occurred.
After the municipality’s proposed budget for the 2018-2019 fiscal year was unveiled, calling for the tax rate to rise from 48 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to 58 cents, most citizens expressed opposition to that at a June 7 public hearing.
Then on June 18, city officials held a workshop, with only a small number of citizens in attendance, and voted 3-2 to approve a budget that included tacking two more cents onto the tax rate with no opportunity for public input.
Clark’s reaction to that development was “guys, you’ve got it backwards,” he said.
“I think they’re underestimating how upset people are about this tax increase,” Clark added regarding city officials supporting the move.
He said a key objective of the new group is to provide a reminder to Mount Airy leaders about who really is in charge.
“The community controls the perception of what they’re doing, whether they like it or not,” Clark said of those individuals.
“That is the reality.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.