The council split its vote during an April 17 meeting on the $850,000 donation, which the council approved on a 5-0 vote with one abstention two weeks prior.
The group initially agreed to donate $850,000 to the university for a development that would feature about 70 units student housing and retail space, dubbed Cumberland Corner.
Lebanon finance commissioner Stuart Lawson said the donation would have came from the city’s general fund, which had about $17 million prior to the council’s vote.
The council originally intended to buy and donate nine pieces of property on South Greenwood Avenue, between Leeville Pike and Martin Avenue, to Cumberland University. However, Lebanon Mayor Bernie Ash said the Municipal Technical Advisory Service opined the move was not legal.
Following that, Councilor Rob Cesternino sponsored the resolution to donate $850,000 to Cumberland University to buy the properties. If Cumberland had failed to finish construction of Cumberland Corner, estimated to cost $15 million-$20 million, within 48 months of the donation, it would have been required to return the donation to the city.
Of the 28 speakers that spoke during the meeting, 14 were against the donation, while 11 expressed support, and three were indifferent. Many in opposition said they believed the funds would be better used in other areas, mainly recreation and public works.
“There’s nothing for the youth to do. When I was at Lebanon High School, there was nothing to do – go to Don Fox Park. That’s it. It’s 2018. We got to do something for the youth,” resident Brad Loftis said during the meeting.
Councilors and Ash discussed their desired use for the funds Monday.
“While we have made vast improvements in public safety and employee benefits, I would continue to use that money to directly benefit citizens – parks, streets, sidewalks, investments in community focused organizations, drainage and an increased codes department,” Councilor Rob Cesternino said. “At the municipal level, we need pragmatic decision making.”
Councilors Joey Carmack and Tick Bryan pointed to the popularity of Don Fox Community Park and said the citizens could benefit from more recreational areas.
“Another park would be nice great for our citizens,” said Carmack, who said he would get input from his constituents about their desires. “If we are going to use taxpayer money, I feel everyone should benefit from it.”
“I’m all for having more amenities for our citizens,” said Bryan, who said he did not see a difference between the potential donation and tax abatements for privately owned companies such as Wonder Porcelain.
Bryan said he has received calls about the lack of parking at Don Fox Park, noting many residents opposed the park before it was built.
“You’re always going to have people oppose things, but if it’s something that benefits the entire city, I’m all for it,” he said.
Ash said he believed the funds should be used for public projects, such as sidewalks, roads, parks and similar projects.
He said the city should look at spending about $3 million to build smaller parks throughout the city, as well as continue to build up the city’s trail system.
“I think more parks in more areas would benefit the citizens,” Ash said.
Ash said although he opposed the potential donation, he does not oppose Cumberland University or the Cumberland Corner project. However, he said legal issues and the donation amount caused him to have concern, despite city attorney Andy Wright’s opinion the city would have done nothing illegal in donating the money.
“I understand giving to small groups and different organizations. I’m not opposed to giving, and we’re going to continue to do that, but we need to be extremely careful how we do it,” Ash said.