After a contentious discussion, the Auburn City Council approved an ordinance on Thursday in a special-called meeting to set a date of July 23 for a special municipal bond election where voters will decide whether to allow the city to issue $46 million in bonds for school projects to be repaid by the city’s existing Special Five-Mill Tax Fund.
The council approved the ordinance 6-3, with Councilwoman Connie Fitch-Taylor and Councilmen Steven Dixon and Bob Parsons voting against the measure.
Both Dixon and Parsons wanted the election date pushed back to the first Tuesday in August, saying they were responding to the desires of constituents who wanted the election date after the end of summer vacation and that they wanted to make sure residents had the best opportunity to vote. Other council members noted that those on vacation would still have the opportunity to vote by absentee ballot.
Auburn City Schools and Auburn University had previously indicated a preference for an election date in July so that it did not take place during the first week of school for ACS and during rush week at Auburn.
The projects to be funded by the bond issuance and Five-Mill Fund — the overhaul of Cary Woods Elementary and J.F. Drake Middle School — were not the issue under consideration by the council, said City Manager Jim Buston.
“This issue is not about the projects,” he said. “This issue is about setting the best possible date for the bond issuance.”
Buston explained that the city’s bond attorneys, financial experts, underwriters, a nationwide financial advising group and Auburn City Schools experts recommended an election date of July 23 after identifying estimated construction costs, which can fluctuate, and financially modeling the issuance and repayment and pegging it to a specific election date, among other complex considerations.
“If a different election date is chosen, then we go back to the drawing board. We go back through all this analysis,” said Buston. “All of that analysis going through that model would have to be changed. Whether it comes out the same or not, we don’t know at this point. But if a different election date is chosen, then all bets are off and we go back to the drawing board and we start over again.
“What the council is debating is what is the best date to put out these bonds which gives us the best return on our bond issuance.”
Buston also explained the importance of previous city councils’ conservative approach to financial decisions in creating stability and predictability, which he said has resulted in Auburn having one of the best bond ratings in the state.
Thursday’s special-called meeting was held because unanimous consent was denied at Tuesday’s regular meeting by Councilman Dixon, who said he would have never denied unanimous consent Tuesday if he thought it would impact Auburn City Schools.
“This is a very time-sensitive issue,” said Buston. “Even with July 23 as the date, we can’t tell you exactly when we’ll go to the bond market because that will depend on what the market is doing at the time. It may be one week it may be the next week. Again, our financial advisors will tell us, ‘This is the time to get into the market.’ ”
Tension between council members was palpable at Thursday’s meeting, after disagreements about the issue on Tuesday night spilled over to social media posts. Multiple council members also expressed frustration with the view that others on the council are not trusting the city’s staff and experts on a range of issues.
“At some point, we have to put our faith in these experts, the people that have far more training and expertise and experience than I do and frankly anyone up here,” said Councilman Jay Hovey. “I don’t like to see this council question so many opinions or plans that are put out there by our staff. I don’t see that as our role as council to question which streets to pave, arbitrarily what day to have an election. At some point, we have to put our faith in our staff. And that’s my issue with where we are today. It’s nothing other than that. And so I’d like to put my faith in experts and people that put time into this rather than us trying to arbitrarily pick a date that may or may not be best for most people.”
Similar sentiments were shared by Councilmen Brett Smith, who said Dixons’ denial of unanimous consent on Tuesday created a sense of instability in the community.
“If we continue down and take irresponsible and reckless decisions — irresponsible being (not listening) to our experts, the people we pay with our coffers to make decisions, that’s irresponsible — we are going to create a sense of instability,” Smith said. “I don’t know that our new council grasps how important (it is) that we set a tone of leadership in this community.”
Councilman Parsons said he was not after drama, but good stewardship of the city.
“It’s great to listen to the experts. I totally agree with you; it’s great to listen to the experts,” said Parsons, who, along with Dixon, also praised the excellence of the Auburn City Schools system. “On the other hand, it’s also great to listen to the desires of the people who put us here.”
Councilman Tommy Dawson put the overarching issue facing the council in characteristically blunt terms.
“We’ve got to come together as a council,” he said. “There’s far too much bickering, there’s far too much back and forth with each other. You can’t keep doing it.
“My constituents, I didn’t have one person to ask me to put it off. They were fine with July 23. Had I had some like Mr. Parsons and Mr. Dixon, I would have felt like they felt possibly…. Maybe it will start with me. I’ll make a pledge here today in front of everybody — I will work harder to get along better with this council, but I ask that some of you do the same thing.”
Mayor Ron Anders did not speak during the discussion, but raised his own concerns after the vote.
“Rich debate is healthy. It makes our community better because it usually brings great ideas to the forefront,” he said. “Disrespect is hard and it undermines the trust that our community has in us.
“To me, I hope that my intuition is wrong. But I hope that the concern of the people who want the vote moved, those constituents, is primarily to do with their travel schedules and their life plans and what summer looks like in Auburn and less to do with not trusting the people to make decisions on their behalf. I yearn for an Auburn that that’s in our rearview mirror and not in front of us.”