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Downtown program sparks debate

Lincolnton’s 2004-05 budget gained unanimous approval Thursday night, but only after the City Council heard both sides of a heated debate over the Business and Community Development department.
The public hearing on the budget was a drastic change from last year, when the budget slid through the approval process with not so much as peep from residents.
Thursday night, they packed the Commissioners Room, spilling out into the lobby, most in attendance to debate the merits of the downtown program.
Council approved an 8.5 percent water and sewer rate increase instead of the expected 12.5 percent after the state gave the city the option of restructuring a loan. Some residents questioned the need for the increase.
But most attention was focused on the Business and Community Development department, which will receive $197,600 this year.
Terry Peeler, who owned a downtown business for 23 years, said that during his dealings with BCD and the Downtown Development Association, he was treated in a condescending way.
“I have nothing but negative comments about the DDA,” Peeler said. “I think this whole organization is useless, and it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money.”
Peeler’s comment, like many others, was met with a mix of stinging applause and some ‘boos.’
Ronnie Leonhardt, a downtown property owner, pointed specifically to BCD Director Brad Guth, saying he’s not always “user-friendly.”
He said the council should consider running downtown programs out of the Lincolnton-Lincoln County Chamber of Commerce instead of having a separate department to do so.
“This is not politics, it is about cutting the budget,” Leonhardt said.
But DDA members and BCD supporters fired back. Wearing neon green “Keep Main Street” stickers and holding signs, they listed the benefits of programs and what the DDA has done for downtown.
Laura Gregory, DDA chairwoman, pointed to downtown programs like Alive After Five and Hog Happenin’, aesthetic improvements, historic districts and financial help given to business owners as examples of the group’s success. She said those who stood up against the program were doing so because of personal conflicts with people or issues.
“That does not mean the whole program is a useless program,” she said.
Jennifer Byrd, who owns Byrd’s Sundries with her husband, said Guth’s help was crucial during the opening of her business.
“Downtown Lincolnton is such a unique place with special needs that demand someone with Brad Guth’s expertise,” Byrd said.
The meeting became heated when Rising Sun Pottery owner Gary Lee turned to the crowd of detractors and asked what they specifically had against Guth and the organization.
“They haven’t been specific. What is their complaint?” Lee said. “We, the supporters, have told you all the positive things. Tell us what you don’t like.”
Words flew from the audience until Mayor Huitt brought the meeting back to order.
Councilman Larry Mac Hovis said while he supports the program, it receives too much city money and is taking funds away from other departments.
“We support the DDA, we support Business and Community Development. But personally I like to help people who help themselves,” Hovis said. “We need to get some help, because we’ve got other areas in the city that need this money, too. You cannot put all your money into downtown.”
After approving the budget, council had to consider a request from Guth to roll over unused funds — about $23,000 — into the new budget. The money would be used as part of a loan program for downtown.
Councilman Fred Houser said the money should be put back in the general fund. Hovis accused the department of “coming through the back door” with the request.
“To me, the city’s got no business being in the loan business with taxpayers’ money,” he said. “We cannot keep funding all this money to projects they want to start.”
Councilman Carroll Heavner made a motion to approve the request.
The motion resulted in a tie, with Heavner and Councilman Les Cloninger voting in favor, and Hovis and Houser dissenting.
Mayor Bobby Huitt cast the tie-breaking vote to approve the request.

Budget highlights
· The $26.1 million budget keeps property taxes at 51 cents per $100 valuation and maintains the recreation tax of 5 cents. Revaluation growth for the city is estimated at $70.7 million, which translates to about $350,000 in actual revenue, Houser said. That revenue is almost taken up by the rise in the cost of employee hospital medical insurance.
· The restructuring of a $10 million loan allowed the city to increase water and sewer rates by 8.5 percent instead of 12.5 percent. City Manager Jeff Emory said rates will have to go up by 3.5 percent in 2005-06.
· Capital spending decreased, and the operating budget did not increase. Municipal services will stay at the current level.
· There is no increase in electric rates.
City employees will receive a 2.5 percent cost of living adjustment.by Alice Smith

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