Bingham presides over first meeting as mayor
By Karen Hall
After being sworn in by City Judge Debbie Zimmerle, Chapel Hill's new mayor Danny Bingham and the aldermen held their first meeting as a group. The only change among the aldermen is the replacement of Pam Elliott by Jan Darnell. Relatively new faces around the table belong to City Manager Mark Graves and Recorder/Treasurer Abby Gibson, who started work in early July.
After approving the minutes and the financials, the aldermen's first job was to choose a vice mayor.
Alderman Dottie Morton nominated Marion Joyce, and this was unanimously approved. Joyce replaces Alderman Horace Hill Jr. who has been vice mayor for eight years.
Graves gave a report on issues he is dealing with, including two vacancies at the water department.
Chapel Hill's Industrial Development Corporation was the subject of most of the rest of the meeting, which lasted from 6 p.m. until after 7:30.
Earlier this year, the IDC paid a property owner's city and county taxes. City attorney J. Todd Moore was not even sure they had the authority to do this, and Bingham said, "I think it was a bad decision."
The payment was not made from town funds, but from the IDC's account.
Fortunately, Tommy Howell, acting IDC chairman, was there to explain what happened, and how the IDC came to pay someone's taxes.
Back in 2008, William L. "Fuzzy" Mayo expressed an interest in moving his business, Jumps by Fuzzy, Inc., to Marshall County. He liked a property adjacent to the Chapel Hill town line.
"The IDC checked Mayo out," said Howell, and found he was well thought of, and financially sound. They thought his business -- building, selling, and renting jumps and portable stalls for horse shows -- would be a good fit for Chapel Hill.
"There's a lot of things you use as candy to get them to come," Howell said. In Mayo's case, what he wanted was for the property to be annexed into the city, and a three-year tax abatement.
Howell said he thought it was all going according to plan. The IDC's attorney, Bob Binkley, died and City Manager Mike Hatten resigned, and thus they lost the two people who knew the most about the transaction.
"The ball got dropped," Howell admitted. "I thought everything was in place."
"Mayo came in earlier this year, and said, 'I paid my taxes and I wasn't supposed to,'" said Howell.
Then the problem for him and the other board members was how to live up to the city's promise.
Saying, "That's tough, we're not going to do it," was not an option, said Howell. Nor was starting now and paying Jumps by Fuzzy's property taxes for the next three years. This would have involved the city in owning the property for three years, leading to a lot of costly legal work, and considerable expense since the Fuzzy has improved the property and it would now sell for much more.
So the decision was made to reimburse the taxes he had paid erroneously, Howell said.
"You all did not make that agreement," he said, pointing to the aldermen, "We did. I wish it had been done correctly. We took what we felt was the appropriate action. We were not just out paying somebody's taxes, we were fulfilling a contract. We did not want to hurt the city in any way. Every person on the board has the interests of Chapel Hill at heart."
"We appreciate your explanation," exclaimed Bingham. "This clears up a lot. We need to figure out a way to better work together."
One way this will be done is that Graves will start attending IDC meetings, resuming the town administrator's role of acting as liaison with the IDC.