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Hendersonville Mayor Barbara Volk and challenger Ron Stephens traded shots today over the cost of a new city fire station, with Stephens saying he never voted for a $3.6 million construction contract and Volk insisting that he had.
Answering a question about the city's borrowing, Stephens asked "where was the control, where was the leadership" from Volk on the project.
"My opponent," Volk answered, "says why didn't we know. He voted for the contract."
The verbal combat between the usually mild-mannered mayor and Stephens, a council member who is making his second run for city mayor, came during a Chamber of Commerce forum that focused on business issues. The forum triggered the most contentious volleys in the campaign so far as Stephens stepped up his attacks on Volk and the council for borrowing, spending and what he portrays as an anti-business climate.
Stephens and council challengers Jeff Miller and Diane Caldwell all said they opposed borrowing money to improve Berkeley Park. Volk defended the park project as an economic development catalyst and incumbents Jerry Smith and Jeff Collis said the council had done the right thing in letting the voters decide the question.
Stephens and Volk differed sharply on the new fire station on Sugarloaf Road. Their answers came in a question about whether the city has borrowed too much on capital projects. The projects include the fire station, two blocks of the Main Street makeover and a project to convert to electronic water meters citywide.
"That's one of the reasons I am running because the cost of these projects have gotten out of control," Stephens said. "The fire station we need to build because insurance rates are going up if we don't — and let me say no one supports the fire department, the firemen and their families more than I do.
"But the first part of this fire station was $900,000. They bought the land before I was on City Council, a very good purchase, bought it in bankruptcy for $650,000, 11 acres, that was very positive.
"Today, the fire station is costing — not with the land, $3.6 million. Where was the control, where was the management on that, where was the leadership? I tried to find out how that happened. It did not come before City Council, I have not voted on that big increase. I've asked another city council member, who doesn't remember it. I've gone to City Hall and interviewed some key people who have been involved in that. They don't remember. I am asking this morning the mayor to tell us, When did she know that it was going to cost this much and how did she find it out?"
Volk responded that Stephens had every opportunity to raise concerns when he voted on it himself.
"He was there the night we voted on the contract," she said. "He didn't question it that night. If he had concerns I really wish he had brought them out when we were approving the bid and approving the contract instead of bringing them out at this point."
Council members Jeff Collis and Jerry Smith both defended the city's financial stability against the charge that has become a campaign refrain from challengers — that the city is too heavily in debt and the council has let spending careen out of control.
The council this year booted a 3-cent tax increase that the manager recommended and instead used reserves to pay debt service.
"Hendersonville is in very good financial shape," Collis said. "The state requires us to keep an 8 percent fund balance reserve. We're currently at 42 percent. It's long been city policy to keep an extra large fund balance in a rainy day fund. But we've just come through the worst economic crunch since the great depression and I think it was very good on the city's part to, instead of raising taxes, take a few dollars out of the rainy day fund. We're still well above the state mandate. ...
"With the fire station, I agree with Mayor Volk," Collis added. "There was five of us that voted on it. I don't know what has happened for Ron to not realize that he voted on it as well. We hired an architect that specialized in fire stations, I learned more than I probably ever want to know about fire stations but when people are there 24 hours a day you can't use common building materials ... and a lot of things like that. It's all geared toward response — getting people out of the building as fast as they can. We can bicker about how that was spent but there was management on it and we're right on budget for it."
Smith, too, defended the city's fiscal condition.
"Currently, at the end of last year, we had $5.7 million in our reserve fund, which was around 42 or 45 percent range," he said. "Our debt is roughly 8 percent of our city budget. The state puts a number of 15 percent, if your debt is 15 percent they start looking closely at your finances, so we are well within the state control on that ...
"Our tax rate in Hendersonville — we are right smack dab in the middle, right around 250th; there's roughly 560 municipalities in the state. Are we capable of funding additional capital projects? Yes, we have the financial wherewithal to do that. Part of the reason we decided to go to the voters (with the Berkeley Park bond) was, in order to maintain this healthy level of funding, there's no way we can move forward without some level of tax increase."
Council candidate Jeff Miller said this is the wrong time to borrow more for an optional project.
"The bond would give City Council permission to borrow up to $6 million," he said. "Some people want to build the park out completely on the front end, some don't. I think $6 million is kind of a shot at. I don't think in this case it's a wise thing to do to borrow money to build a park. We're $12 million in debt. We just borrowed three and a half (million) I think for fire station, two and half (million) for overruns on Main Street — which, I want to say, I think we're in great shape, too. Main Street's beautiful. I don't think we need to step out and do something like this at this grand scale.
"We also have to look at the health care. We don't know exactly what's going to happen with the city's health care coming up either, so that could be an increase," he said. "We've already heard we've got a potential 3-cent tax increase (to cover current debt). If you did that and you did the park and you added that on to it, at 3 to 4 cents, you'd be looking at a 17 percent tax increase. We're in good shape but we don't need to do these optional things."
Council candidate Diane Caldwell said she would weigh the costs before voting to move ahead.
"I'm a very conservative person when it comes to spending," she said. "However, I also agree that there comes a time when spending has to take place. What I would do is look at the cost? I like to try and see what were the trends ... and have something to compare it to.... I would look at what it costs now and how much would it cost in the future?"