Somerset Mayor JP Wiles last night broke a 6-to-6 deadlock making every man, woman and child in Somerset responsible for about $417 worth of collateral on a $5 million loan to finance the new SomerSplash water park over the next 10 years.

The controversial vote was made a in standing-room-only City Council chambers packed with concerned citizens.

However, Mayor Wiles ruled that no member of the audience would be allowed to speak on the ordinance, since none had properly requested to be placed on the agenda prior to the meeting.

Councilors Jerry Girdler, Mark Beasely, Fonda Crawford, Jerry Burnett, Tim Rutherford and Jim Mitchell each voted to make the approximately 12,000 constituents they represent go surety for the loan.

Councilors Clarence Floyd, Jerry Wheeldon, Charles New, Donna Hunley, John Minton and Joann Norfleet favored postponing action on the ordinance for two weeks, and each voted against last night’s first reading of the ordinance.

In the end, Wiles cast the deciding tie-breaker.

Wasting no time, the Mayor scheduled the second reading of the controversial ordinance for 5:30 p.m. today at City Hall. Ordinance 06-04 binds the city to back a lease agreement with Cumberland Security Bank to finance SomerSplash with its full faith and credit. The $5 million lease is for the acquisition, construction and installation of the city’s first water park on North U.S. 27. The facility is scheduled to open Memorial Day weekend.

News of first reading of the ordinance broke last Friday afternoon when mayoral candidate Eddie Girdler raised questions about a possible city tax to fund the project. Girdler contented the ordinance allowed the city to levy a tax if the water park does not generate the amount of revenue expected by city officials, or city government does not have the funds to retire the debt.

City Attorney Joe Travis tried to lay to rest talk of a possible city tax by reassuring the approximately 75-100 people in attendance the ordinance is only a means to guarantee the bank the debt will be retired.

“This ordinance does not levy a tax to fund the water park,” Travis said. “All it does is guarantee the bank will get its money.”

Wiles asked city financial officer Jimmy Hogg how much the city has in its bank account.

“$20 million.” Hogg responded.

Wiles said the city has revenue from profits from the city garbage department and other sources — including money to be generated from water park ticket sales —to fund the project without levying a tax.

Last night’s vote was never intended by the Mayor. The water park loan was expected to be secured by the value of the property on which it is being built. However, bankers and attorneys took exception to a reversion clause on the park property that would see the land ownership revert to Somerset Christian School of the land failed to be used for park development. Basically the loan was left without collateral, and in the end the city had to assume responsibility for the debt in case the park flops.

The problem put Wiles on the horns of an election-year dilemma: SomerSplash’s grand opening is rapidly approaching and the city has no choice but to proceed.

Last night’s crowd was one of the largest to attend a City Council meeting in recent memory. Many attendees obviously had questions, but they were not allowed to voice their concerns at the meeting.

“Anyone who wishes to address the council must ask at least one day in advance of a scheduled meeting,” Wiles told the crowd.

Eddie Girdler, who is challenging Wiles’ for his seat as mayor in the upcoming May Primary Election, asked to be placed on the agenda five minutes prior to the start of the meeting. He said he made the request as soon as he learned audience members had to get the Mayor’s permission before taking the floor.

When Wiles’ refused to open the discussion to citizen comments, Girdler left the Council Chambers in a huff.

“We’re fighting for democracy in Iraq, but here in the city of Somerset, the Mayor of Somerset decides who is going to speak in open council,” Girdler told a reporter. “He is the ultimate authority on who gets to speak to the council.”

Earlier, when Wiles opened the meeting by welcoming guests to City Hall, Girdler was heard to respond under his breath, “Bull.”

After the meeting, Wiles said it is policy to get the person’s name and the subject matter before anyone is allowed to address the council. They then are granted five minutes to speak.

Several councilors voiced their opposition to a city tax to support the water park.

Councilor Donna Hunley made a motion to postpone a vote on first reading of the ordinance for two weeks until the council had had an opportunity to study the proposed document. Mayor Wiles broke the tie in a 6-6 stalemate to delay a vote on the ordinance.

Meanwhile, councilor Jerry Girdler said he felt some members of cty council were trying to undermine the water park project for political reasons.

“Every council member here voted to build the water park, but the silly season has started and now certain members, with outside input, have decided to vote against finishing the park,” councilor Jerry Girdler read from a prepared statement.

“When one borrows money, you have to put up collateral,” he said. “We are not raising taxes. We used this method to build Rocky Hollow and the mayor can tell us the other projects. All of a sudden this is not acceptable.”

Councilor Girdler said he fears “the motives of the opposition’s votes are politically motivated. If they hadn’t voted for this method of repayment before, this opposition would be sincere. Under these circumstances, I question their motives.”

Councilor John Minton said he supports the water park, but “I will not vote for anything that will raise taxes.”

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