No easy answer on Habitat request

By John Peters

August 9, 2014

On Thursday Mount Airy Commissioner Shirley Brinkley expressed a concern that the community might view her as the “bad guy” for leading opposition to a request to waive water and sewer hook-up fees for two Habitat for Humanity building sites in the city.

Commissioner Jon Cawley also had problems with the request, and said he expected some to begin questioning whether he was supportive of Habitat as a whole, simply because he questioned this request. The two commissioners, along with board member Jim Ambrister, made up the voting block that defeated the request on a 3-2 vote.

For the record, we do not think Brinkley is the “bad guy,” nor do we believe Cawley has any problem with Habitat. On the contrary, we believe both commissioners did the right thing in voicing their questions and concerns regarding the proposal.

It would have been easy to give a rubber-stamp yes and move on. Habitat is an easy organization to support. It’s run well, it’s an honest organization that keeps a tight rein on its finances, keeping most of the resources it receives out in the field, where it makes a difference.

And what a difference.

When a family moves into a Habitat home a number of wonderful things are taking place. That puts the family on much more solid financial and emotional footing, which pays dividends for generations. The adults often are able to live a fuller, more satisfying life. Their kids, now on more secure and stable footing, have a better opportunity for high achievement in school and more community involvement, which translates to the likelihood of a more prosperous life, which in turn has the same potential benefits for their children, many years down the road.

Habitat families become stronger contributing members of their communities, paying property taxes, water and sewer fees, and becoming more invested in their community.

Working on their homes, putting in the sweat equity required by Habitat, along with volunteers who are there to help, gives them a stronger appreciation for their neighbors, and makes them more likely to find new ways to make their own volunteer contributions elsewhere in their communities.

One would be hard-pressed to find an agency that does a more effective job of helping those in need, setting them up for long-term success, and building communities in real, tangible, measurable ways that have long-term positive impacts on all involved.

So, we say again, saying yes to a Habitat request is an easy thing to do.

Which makes the commissioners actions Thursday all the more noteworthy.

The central question at play wasn’t whether to be supportive of Habitat — we believe every member of the city board is a big fan of Habitat. Instead, the question was fairness.

The commissioners can’t make decisions in a vacuum. They can’t say Habitat is a great organization, so yeah, let’s approve its request. They have to look at the bigger picture.

Is it fair to grant these waivers for these homes when there are other families in the city struggling to pay taxes and city utility bills? Is it fair to grant the waivers when the city is still trying to compel homes forcibly annexed into the city to pay the same water and sewer hook-up fees? In a greater sense, is it fair to force all city water and sewer customers to subsidize these homes by waiving these fees?

Those are the questions the city has to address — not to mention the legality of arbitrarily waiving these fees for some while not for others.

That’s not to be critical of commissioners Dean Brian and Steve Yokeley, who voted in favor of the waivers. Both of these gentlemen could easily justify their vote as a financial incentive, not unlike what the city often extends to businesses coming into the community.

Those incentives, which take various forms such as grants, gifts of land or facilities, short-term tax write-offs, and even writing off the cost of connection to utilities, are given in exchange for an expected long-term financial benefit to the city. Those benefits take the form of jobs for local residents, long-term tax revenue from the business, and long-term utility revenue in some cases.

The Habitat request could fall along those lines, asking for the short-term benefit of waiving the fees to help a family who will be a long-term financial contributor to the city.

There’s no easy answer here, not a definitive black and white.

Still, when looking at the overall scope of the question, we believe Brinkley and Cawley were correct in their questioning, and that the three commissioners who voted against the request did the right thing for the city.