Vidalia aldermen vote 4-1 to proceed with Square on Carter development

Published 12:04 am Wednesday, June 10, 2015

City of Vidalia alderman Jon Betts expresses his disappointment to mayor Hyram Copeland at feeling like he was given the runaround when he inquired as to where hydroelectric royalties were being allocated during a public hearing regarding the royalties Tuesday. Many Vidalia residents present at the hearing expressed similar feelings. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

City of Vidalia alderman Jon Betts expresses his disappointment to mayor Hyram Copeland at feeling like he was given the runaround when he inquired as to where hydroelectric royalties were being allocated during a public hearing regarding the royalties Tuesday. Many Vidalia residents present at the hearing expressed similar feelings. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

VIDALIA — The Vidalia Board of Aldermen — with one dissenter — voted Tuesday to proceed with the Square on Carter project.

The 4-1 vote followed a motion by Alderman Ricky Knapp that the board proceed with the project with the caveat that in 2016 no royalties from the Sydney A. Murray Hydroelectric Station would be used for the project and residents would receive the maximum rebate allowed by law from the royalties.

City of Vidalia resident Bill Murray speaks about hydroelectric royalties during a public hearing. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

City of Vidalia resident Bill Murray speaks about hydroelectric royalties during a public hearing. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Any future expense of royalties for the project would require a public hearing, Knapp said.

Though it was not in the final adopted form of the motion, Knapp said he would also like to see the moving forward of the project contingent on the approval of the Louisiana Bond Commission, the procurement of three independent appraisals of the property in the proposal and the recusal of town engineer Bryant Hammett from the project.

Hamett owns one of the two parcels of land proposed for the $7 million project, in which the city of Vidalia hopes to purchase 65 acres and develop with infrastructure to attract developers.

“(The bond commission) are some very wise and experienced lawmakers, and I value their opinions,” Knapp said.

“Personally, I would like to see two members of the board sit in on negotiations of the sales agreement. I have bought and sold properties, and never bought or sold for the appraised value.”

Alderman Jon Betts cast the sole dissenting vote without comment. During a public hearing prior to the vote, however, Betts voiced his displeasure with how answers about how the city’s hydroelectric royalties have been spent in the past were given.

During the hearing, two members of the audience voiced frustration with being told all answers about the hydroelectric funds could be found in the city’s audits.

Sabrina Dore´, owner of Vidalia business Shelter Insurance, expresses one of her beliefs that instead of investing money in the proposed Square on Carter project that money should be put forth to improve the city already has. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

Sabrina Dore´, owner of Vidalia business Shelter Insurance, expresses one of her beliefs that instead of investing money in the proposed Square on Carter project that money should be put forth to improve the city already has. (Sam Gause / The Natchez Democrat)

“I got the same response,” Betts said, addressing his comments to City Accountant Ashley Anderson. “I have been to (the state auditor’s) website several times, and I know what it says. I think that personally, as an alderman, I was offended by your answer.”

Betts said the audit shows $2,737,486 in excess royalties, to which Anderson responded the ending figure includes money that comes from the Louisiana Electric Power Association.

“Shame on me for not doing my due diligence, but the thing about that is, if that is not excess revenues, tell me it is not,” he said, to which Anderson said, “That is the way the ordinance has been interpreted by the auditors.”

Betts said he has had a conversation with the auditors and their opinion was the money in question were excess funds and thus eligible for rebate to customers.

When Mayor Hyram Copeland asked Betts if he’d had concerns about the funds in the past and raised questions about them, Betts said he had.

“I have made some mistakes in the past,” he said. “I am not afraid to admit I did not do my due diligence, but I will say I will do my due diligence from now on.”

The public hearing was the second of two, scheduled at the behest of the bond commission last month to ensure the city remains in compliance with its hydroelectric ordinance, No. 588, which requires the city to publish and have hearings annually about projects that may use hydroelectric funds.

The city has not had annual hearings about the funds, though city officials have contended they did not violate the ordinance because the hydroelectric funds are included in the annual budget discussions, which also have a public hearing.

Anderson said during the meeting the city does not plan to use hydroelectric funds for the project, but had listed them as a revenue stream in documents filed with the bond commission.

As with the first hearing, city officials outlined the project and took questions from residents, who largely indicated skepticism about the project.

Vidalia business owner Sabrina Dore said she was concerned a project meant to draw development to the western municipal limits would result in stagnation in the older parts of the city near the river.

“The core of the city now dies because the outside is more attractive, so you have a city center that used to be nice, but that city center falls into disrepair,” Dore said.

“The people who can afford to move out will. The businesses that are already in disrepair are going to continue to be in disrepair and the businesses that remain will fall into disrepair.

“If you don’t like Vidalia, don’t make it larger, make it prettier. If you don’t like it, improve on it before you build on it.”

Resident Pam Clayton, whose family owns several hundred acres in the Vidalia area and has developed 22 residential lots in the recent past, said the development could result in an unfair market.

“We saw a need an addressed it at personal expense. We have now completed this project and are looking forward to a future development on another parcel of our family-owned land,” Clayton said.

“We have expressed concern over being in competition with the city over their future developments. Our position is clear — we intend to research the feasibility of a residential, as well as commercial development in Vidalia, but are unable to obtain a clear insight as to the city’s future plans. We were completely surprised by the Square on Carter, and with personal money at stake, we simply cannot afford to be in competition with a government agency with vast public funds.”

Resident Bill McDonough said he wanted the city to consider paying off its debts before taking on more.

“I just don’t like debt,” he said. “I am asking the board to reconsider the vote on this. It seems like that is a lot of money to owe, and I don’t want to see the people of Vidalia burdened with this.”

Vidalia resident Steve Rogillio told the board he believes the project should be put to residents on a ballot for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote, something with which Patricia Lane — the daughter of Sydney Murray who has questioned how hydroelectric funds have been used — said she agreed, noting that the hydroelectric plant proposal itself was subject to a ballot measure when the city sought bonds for it.

“Isn’t this a bond issue? Why can’t we do that?” she said. “This might not be what you want, but that would be fair.”

During the hearing, Alderwoman Mo Saunders said her heart aches over the issue and asked for unity.

“I don’t want to see this town split,” she said. “We have got people who are always trying to split this town. What I can see and hear here, they are succeeding.”

The project is tentatively scheduled to go before the Louisiana State Bond Commission for a second time June 18.