On June 27, state lawmakers were in the throes of hashing out the 2016-17 budget, when tucked on page 182, a new line item appeared, as if by magic: a $1.5 million grant for water and sewer upgrades and dam repair at John H. Moss Reservoir in Cleveland County.
Such an appropriation sounds neither sexy nor controversial. That is, until it’s revealed that the item was inserted in the budget during a final conference committee hearing at the end of the session. No previous versions of the Senate or House budget include it.
And that Moss Reservoir, also known as Moss Lake, is in Kings Mountain, home of House Speaker Tim Moore.
And that his campaign treasurer; a campaign volunteer, and at least four campaign contributors live on or near the lake.
And that the grant money was allocated carte blanche, with virtually no conditions except that Kings Mountain may use it “for any lawful purpose.” None of the 15 other local projects that received grant money was given the same latitude.
It’s not uncommon for state lawmakers to appropriate money for pet projects in their districts. As part of the same budget line, Water Resources Development Projects, Rutherfordton received a $500,000 grant for stream restoration on Cleghorn Creek. The town received the money, said town manager Doug Barrick, at the behest of State Rep. Mike Hager. However, that grant has several conditions, including that must be spent only on the stream project.
Moore, though, has refined the maneuver to an art, with varying degrees of success. The Moss Lake project sailed through unnoticed. In 2012, Moore secured $62,000 in state-approved economic development grants to expand his private law practice in Kings Mountain. But in 2014, Moore’s $500,000 request to build a new access road to a baseball stadium failed. Last fall, Moore inserted into the budget a $5 million grant for water and sewer lines in rural Cleveland County, although that request, which passed, was widely known.
City Planner Steve Killian told NCPW that the money will pay for “several sets of repairs.” Asked if Moore was responsible for securing the $1.5 million, Killian said, “I’m assuming so.”
The House chief budget writer, Rep. Nelson Dollar, did not return a message seeking comment about the timing and content of the legislation.
Based on its repair history on file at the N.C. Department of Environmental Quality, Moss Lake does require regular upkeep. However, the grant amount is sizable. Of the local projects, only two received more money: Morehead City, with $2 million for harbor maintenance, and Ocean Isle Beach, $1.53 million to repair coastal storm damage.
Another $2 million grant was awarded to a statewide agricultural conservation program.
Kings Mountain City Manager Marilyn Sellers didn’t return an email or a phone call seeking comment. Moore didn’t respond to an email request for comment at his law office.
Russell Wingfield, a three-term member of Kings Mountain’s Moss Lake Commission, said via email that he didn’t think the $1.5 million ever appeared on an agenda. A review of 18 months’ of minutes confirms Wingfield’s account, and shows that the funding was never discussed at a commission meeting.
It’s clear from the minutes that the money could benefit the lake — if indeed, that’s how the funds are spent — but it also could increase the home values of several people closely connected to Moore’s campaign.
According to Moore’s campaign finance reports from 2014 to 2016, Donna Mabry, Moore’s treasurer, and Misty Greene, a campaign volunteer, live on Moss Lake. Contributors James Testa ($1,500) Robert Arey ($700), William Shipley ($300) and Ellis Monroe ($200) also live there.
Dennis Bailey ($250), works for ReMax realty, which sells homes in Cleveland County, including several on the lake.
The reservoir was built after a drought hit Kings Mountain in the late 1960s. The shortage had hurt the city’s textile industry, which relied on water for its dyeing operations. A church, homes and a graveyard were all demolished and its inhabitants relocated to make way for the reservoir. The dam was built in 1972. Now the 2,000-acre lake supplies the city with water and is used for boating and fishing.
But the lake has always been expensive for Kings Mountain to maintain. Fees, including those assessed on property owners, boaters and fishers, are the only source of revenue for maintaining the lake’s operation, about $270,000 a year. Those monies go into the city’s general fund.
Last year, several homeowners pooled their finances and hired Drew Beam, a private contractor who also lives along the lake, to dredge silt from a cove, to provide access to their properties, according to DEQ permits. Estimates at the time reached more than $250,000. Killian told NCPW that none of the grant money would be used to reimburse the homeowners or Beam for that work.
While lawmakers often use this budget tactic, it is not good governance, said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause in North Carolina. “This has been a problem for years, in both parties,” he said. “We’ve constantly pushed for more transparency where we know who’s behind what and why. It only reinforces that the powerful are getting all the goodies.”