Supporters of a $25 million bond referendum say the measure would help shape the next phase of the town’s growth.
The bond money would be slated to fund streets, parks and recreation and greenway projects, including big-ticket items such as a community center at Joyner Park, the widening of Ligon Mill Road and construction of the Smith and Sanford Creek greenway.
State law forbids municipalities from using public money to take a position on a referendum, requiring elected officials and town staff to make sure their public information campaign doesn’t stray into advocacy.
But other groups, such as town advisory boards and private organizations, are free to throw their weight behind the bond. And they are, saying the projects are critical to Wake Forest’s further development as a destination for businesses and families.
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“For economic development purposes, for the growth of the community, we felt like it was a time and a place for us to lend support,” said Marla Akridge, president of the Wake Forest Area Chamber of Commerce.
Akridge said that companies look at the quality of life for their employees in an area, especially when it comes to roads and recreation opportunities, when they’re evaluating whether to relocate or start a business.
Groups such as the Greenway Advisory Board and the Recreation Advisory Board also are supporting the bond.
No private groups have yet to launch a visible campaign opposing it.
Wake Forest voters will be asked three separate questions on the referendum ballot: Do they support $6.3 million for streets and sidewalks, $14.2 million for parks and recreation and $4.6 million for greenways?
If voters approve all three, Wake Forest expects to leverage an additional $30 million worth of matching grant funds, for a total of $55 million in new or improved roads, trails and amenities.
The town has made a list of specific projects that compose the $25 million total for the referendum, but they aren’t guaranteed. A future board could opt to rearrange the items, or financial changes could affect the timing or scope of projects.
Town officials have said they expect to stagger the projects and the bond debt over several years, possibly heading off any tax increase because of revenue growth during that time. In the worst-case scenario, they say the bond would increase the town’s property tax rate of 51 cents per $100 valuation by 2 cents.
The most recent Wake Forest bond referendum took place in 2005, and no tax increase was needed to pay back the debt. Voters approved $7 million in parks and recreation bonds and $9.5 million in street and sidewalk bonds.
Town officials say they’re taking a just-the-facts approach to educating voters about the referendum.
Bill Crabtree, a town spokesman, said Wake Forest staff and officials have worked to avoid advocacy while making sure voters know how the referendum works and what the bond sales would fund.
“We’ve been really careful to inform and not influence,” he said.
The town has sent mailings to voters, created a referendum website and filmed a short video highlighting how the bond would work.
Crabtree said he has not heard any complaints about the town’s educational materials.
Officials have included information about the possibility of a tax increase if the referendum passes.
When explaining what would happen if the bond does not pass, the materials say, “The town is working with limited revenue growth. After operational expenses are calculated, there are little remaining funds left for capital improvements. If the bonds do not pass, some projects will likely be postponed or eliminated.”
The line between information and advocacy can be a tricky one to find.
Raleigh officials recently pulled a video from the city government’s parks and recreation website that seemed to cross the line by advocating for a $92 million bond referendum there. The video was a repurposed promotional video made years ago for the parks and recreation system.
The election is Nov. 4. Early voting began Thursday and lasts until Nov. 1.