Different bond for Lakeland High fails to get vote

CITYSEAL.clr.transparent_pngPolitically active Lakeland residents demanding a vote on a high school bond were crestfallen Thursday night when a resolution on this was not put to a vote.

Commissioner Clark Plunk had proposed a resolution to have a referendum (public vote) on whether to issue general obligation bonds of up to $60 million. Of that amount, an estimated $36.5 million would be used to build a high school for the Lakeland School System.

No one seconded his motion, so there was no further discussion.

Plunk’s resolution varies from what the city has already planned – a different type of bond (one that the city says doesn’t require a vote) to refinance the new middle school debt and finance the high school’s construction. A group of Lakeland citizens filed a lawsuit in December to oppose a bond issuance without a public vote.

Regarding the lawsuit, Lakeland Mayor Wyatt Bunker said after the meeting that he believes it’s frivolous and designed to be obstructive, and he thinks the litigants can be held liable if the city wins the lawsuit.

Bunker also talked about why Plunk’s resolution failed. He said the city attorney has advised the board not to discuss the bond issuance in light of the lawsuit unless the board wants to change direction. He believes the other commissioners don’t want to change the city’s funding plan for the high school and also don’t want to discuss it publicly against legal advice.

Bunker added that Plunk was recently removed as the board’s representative to the Municipal Planning Commission/Design and Review Commission (MPC/DRC) for not communicating between the two bodies as desired. Commissioner Wesley Wright has replaced Plunk in that role. Bunker said he believes that Plunk resented the removal, and that he changed his views about having a referendum in order to undermine the board.

After the meeting, Plunk said he was disappointed that the board didn’t at least discuss his resolution. “It’s not right for a mayor and four commissioners to decide. The citizens of Lakeland are smart enough to have a referendum to decide if they want to spend $60 million for a school.”

Like the mayor and other commissioners, he said he’s all for the school. His explained that his views on whether there should be a referendum have changed since citizens filed a lawsuit against the city for its planned funding method. He said the city has spent over $300,000 on attorney fees since then, and he added, “When’s it going to stop?”

He concluded by saying, “Wait until the elections come up, and I think the voice of the people will be heard loud and clear then.”

Supporters of the resolution also voiced their disappointment after the meeting concluded.

“I feel that citizens have a right to vote,” said Missy Scoggins of Lakeland.

Robert Scoggins of Lakeland added, “I just don’t understand why four or five commissioners think they have the right to take our voice. … Why can’t we just vote on it?”

Susan Richards of Lakeland regretted that she didn’t speak publicly at the meeting when she had an opportunity, because she wanted to thank Commissioner Plunk.

If there were a referendum, she said she would vote against a bond right now. She doesn’t think the investment is justified at this time. She recalls hearing Dr. Ted Horrell, the superintendent of education for Lakeland School System, say it could be 10-20 years before a Lakeland high school is needed.

“When we need a high school, we should go down that road,” Richards said. “And no one has said we need a high school. In fact, the superintendent has said the contrary. The mayor has said he wants a high school, and he directed the superintendent to come up with estimates.”

Kevin Bigs, who’s lived in Lakeland for about two years and has four children in the Arlington school system, said he doesn’t think the board’s actions are financially responsible and they are not taking the citizens’ concerns into account. He pointed to the 2015 vote, where the public voted down constructing both a middle school and a high school at the same time.

Martha Higdon and Kathy Reagan of Lakeland, both former teachers, said they were there in support of Plunk’s resolution, but they weren’t surprised when it failed to get a second. Higdon said the rush to fund the high school without a public referendum felt sneaky. Reagan said the paint wasn’t even dry on the new middle school when the high school plans suddenly emerged.

“All we ask is a vote,” Higdon said, praising Plunk’s attempt to make that happen. “Citizens want a vote.”

Lou Melton of Lakeland and her husband, Cary, filed the original lawsuit against the city and the IDB, alleging open meeting violations and opposing a bond issuance without a referendum. Lakeland tried to get the suit dismissed quickly so the city could proceed with a special type of bond issuance before the end of the year. The stated goal was to issue the bond before costly tax changes went into effect on Jan. 1.

When the dismissal request failed in chancery court, the city filed an interlocutory appeal, asking the appellate court to overturn that decision. That move also failed, and the lawsuit is proceeding. The most recent development is the city’s filing of responses on March 5.

After the city missed the Dec. 31 deadline for issuing the desired type of bond, both the city and the school district have since rescinded their resolutions on the special type of bond issuance, with the school superintendent explaining that the documents were simply too dated to use.

In other business, the board approved:

  • Routine budget amendments
  • An assurance of match with land and cash for a grant application for Lakeland’s Athletic Complex
  • A change to the FY2018 street patching contract
  • Revisions to improve efficiency and reduce the impact of public records requests on city hall staff
  • A proclamation for National Nurses’ Week
  • New rules for use of city parks
  • Removing the vehicular connection between El Hill Road and Canada Road
  • Support for a dedicated left turn arrow on eastbound U.S. 64 at Davies Plantation Road
  • Support for a formal decrease to the posted speed limit on U.S. 64 between Canada Road and Berryhill Road to 45 miles per hour
  • The appointment of Cory Brady as the president of the city’s Industrial Development Board