By Tim Cox
The city of Celina will pay nearly $80,000 to have Verizon bury a short stretch of telephone lines so a new car dealership can open there.
City officials are justifying the expense as an economic development incentive to help secure the 32 full-time jobs owner Bud Schoenleben plans to create by opening a Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep dealership at the site of the former Star Warehouse along U.S. 127 near Schunk Road. The stand of 10 utility poles slashes across the planned car lot.
The money will be paid from the Grand Lake tax increment finance (TIF) district.
Some city officials expressed frustration that Verizon is getting such a large amount of money for what essentially amounts to an improvement of the company's infrastructure.
City council passed first reading of an ordinance to make the payment from the TIF fund. They had planned to approve the ordinance as an emergency measure but were blocked from doing so because Councilman Ed Jeffries voted against it. Councilman Collin Bryan was absent, so council lacked the three-fourths majority necessary to pass an emergency issue. Jeffries said he supports the new development and appreciates Schoenleben's investment into the community but could not vote in favor of paying Verizon the $79,000 for the work.
"It rubs me the wrong way," Jeffries said of the "multi-billion dollar company" refusing to even negotiate the price of burying the lines. There are no city utilities or cable television lines on the Verizon-owned poles.
Safety-Service Director Jeff Hazel said Verizon must use overtime labor to do the work, which must be done during off-peak hours. The city is keeping the costs down somewhat by having city crews do the necessary trenching before Verizon crews move the lines. Without that agreement with the company, the bill likely would have approached $100,000, Hazel said.
Mayor Sharon LaRue joined Jeffries in expressing frustration with Verizon.
"It galls me a little bit that Verizon is going to be the recipient of this money," she said. (But) "I think we will get a good return on our investment."
Council's community betterment committee had recommended approval of the payment. Although some council members initially were wary of footing the bill for the burial of the lines, most came on board when viewing the long-term benefit. They point to the initial creation of 32 jobs and the investment of an estimated $3 million at the site as a welcome trade-off for an $80,000 expense.
"The positives of approving this far outweigh the negatives," Councilman Chris Mohler said. "I think we'd be silly not to vote for it."
Councilman Bill Sell questioned whether city officials might be setting a precedent. By approving Schoenleben's deal, they must be prepared to consider similar requests in the future.
"We need to be equitable in our extension of favors," Sell said.
Councilwoman Angie King compared the payment to the past extension of electric lines to help Celina Tent. The city has made other improvements in the past to benefit economic growth, Hazel said.