Legal fees and politics: Montreat Board of Commissioners hears concerns from public

Ezra Maille
Black Mountain News
Legal fees, audits and a new system of government made up discussion at the Montreat Board of Adjustment meeting May 12.

MONTREAT - Discussions of fees, budgets and governmental systems made up the majority of the Montreat Board of Commissioners meeting May 12. 

The commissioners also completed two appointments to town boards at the meeting. 

"The legal battle over the lodge is draining the finances of this town," said Philip Arnold, a member of the town audit committee, addressing the board. "I have watched as the town has had to write check after check to lawyers, spending money we don't have, money that's not in the town budget."

At the Board of Commissioners meeting in April, Mayor Tim Helms announced the cost of legal fees for the town for the Mountain Retreat Association's lodge hearings totaled more than $100,000. 

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The Montreat Board of Adjustment on Jan. 6 approved a special use permit for the MRA to build a new lodge. Since then, the opposition to the lodge has stated intentions to fight the decision.

As the opposition continues to work on an appeal of the Board of Adjustment's decision with superior county court, community members such as Arnold have reservations about mounting legal fees. 

"I know this council does not want to raise our property taxes," Arnold said. "We're a little town with limited resources."

Arnold proposed the idea that for the future, the opposition to the lodge reimburse the town for legal expenses incurred as hearings continue.

Other community members also addressed the board about the town's current budgetary needs, citing concerns of a late audit. In December, Montreat was placed on the state treasurer's Unit Assistance List due to the town having not submitted an annual audit for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. 

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"We're in this position financially in part because our cash reserves, our fund balance, seem to have dropped quite a lot," said Mary Standaert, a Montreat resident who addressed the board. "Under normal circumstances, we would have the 35% that was mandated by this council in cash reserves."

Although the current budget has yet to be finalized, Ben Blackburn, interim town administrator, said the town has estimated that the cash reserves will be at 32%. This fund pays for expenses such as the legal fees incurred during the MRA hearings. 

Regardless of the Board of Adjustment's decision on the lodge hearings, Commissioner Kent Otto encouraged the public to treat the board members favorably. He said since the Board of Adjustment is made up of volunteers, they should be treated with respect as members of the Montreat community.

"It frustrates me when we don't have our house in order," Otto said. "I'm disappointed with some of the attacks that we've had."

Community members also raised concerns over the new system of government the town has been considering, moving from a Board of Commissioners and town administrator system to a Town Council and town manager system. Community members questioned if the new system would influence the political landscape. 

Helms explained that currently, the town functions nearly identically to a council-manager system with very few differences. 

"Right now, if I were influenced politically, I could steer a lot of things the way the government is set up now but I don't do that," Helms said. "The previous mayor didn't do that."

Historically, the town has trained town administrators to go on to become town managers. Helms said he hopes the new system will attract a more permanent position for potential town managers. 

Finally, the commissioners completed two new appointments to town boards: Allen Crawford to the Planning and Zoning Commission and Danny Sharp from alternate to full time member of the Board of Adjustment. 

The Montreat Board of Commissioners plans to meet May 26 at 6 p.m. for a budget workshop to continue to discuss finances. 

Ezra Maille covers the town of Black Mountain, Montreat and the Swannanoa Valley. Reach him at 828-230-3324 or emaille@blackmountainnews.com. Please support local journalism with access to more breaking news by subscribing.