Patsy Dowling, the director of Mountain Projects, has been working with the county for much of the past year to arrive at a lease agreement for the property, a two-acre tract on lower Russ Avenue past K-Mart, to build the facility on. Dowling thought she had arrived at a mutually agreeable price of $16,500 a year for 40 years, after which Mountain Projects would own the land. But it now turns out not all commissioners were on board with the plan. Some commissioners thought the idea of leasing to Mountain Projects was just that — an idea being bantered about — rather than a firm commitment.
Commissioners Larry Ammons and Kirk Kirkpatrick are questioning whether the county should give Mountain Projects what they consider a sweetheart deal on the property.
Kirkpatrick questioned whether the lease should be locked in at the same $16,500 a year for the life of the 40-year lease. Kirkpatrick suggested a formula for adjusting the lease rate every five years to reflect market changes.
“Most long term leases are graduated leases,” said Kirkpatrick, a real estate attorney. “With the cost of property in Haywood County, I can’t even guestimate what $16,500 would be equivalent to in 40 years. It might be like leasing the property for $100.”
Commissioners Bill Upton and Mary Ann Enloe disagreed.
“If we graduate how much you pay, would that not cut back on programs you offer?” Upton asked Dowling. “I feel like it is service provided to the community. I am in favor of leaving it at $16,500.”
Mountain Projects is a non-profit agency that manages social aid programs. Many of those programs are subsidized by the government, but are suffering from budget cuts. For example, the federal government cut the low-income rent assistance by $60,000 last year, Dowling said. There is now a two-year waiting list for rental assistance.
Enloe said the work of Mountain Projects is a commitment worth supporting.
“I realize real estate values go up, but this is not about real estate,” Enloe said.
Ammons said Dowling can’t expect to get such a good annual rate on the lease plus own the property at the end of 40 years.
“If we give you a marked down lease for the whole 40 years and give you the property at the end, that’s having your cake and eating it, too,” Ammons said.
Ammons said he would go along with the 40-year lease for $16,500 a year, but wants the county to have the option of renewing the lease when 40 years was up or retaining the property. That could be a deal killer, however.
Mountain Projects has to get federal funding to buy the land and build the facility. Dowling said the federal agency would likely not approve funding for a facility they would have to forfeit after the 40 year lease was up.
Mountain Projects would pay the county more than $600,000 over the course of the 40-year lease. Dowling said that is a fair value for a two-acre tract.
Commissioner Skeeter Curtis did not weigh in on one side or the other. The board did not take a vote.
Ammons instructed County Attorney Chip Killian to draw up a lease template. Given the split nature of the board over whether the lease price should be graduated, and whether it should be a lease to own, it is unclear how Killian will write it. Ammons told Killian not to include the lease-to-own clause but leave it open for the county to resume ownership of the property after 40 years and see whether the federal agency funding the facility balks at that or not.
The issue will be revisited by commissioners next month.