October 10, 2017/Press

NC GOP Looks Out for Donors at Expense of NC Taxpayers, Sneaks in Six Figure Giveaway for Donor’s Private Development

Raleigh – Former GOP Rep. Millis, who retired from office unexpectedly last month, snuck into the 2017 budget a six-figure sweetheart deal to finance an aquarium project that would anchor and drive up the value of a residential and commercial development owned by GOP mega-donor Raiford Trask.

Now, last week’s technical corrections expanded the provision, putting state taxpayers on the hook for the actual construction of the project, all while Trask boast that not only will state tax dollars will fund the construction of the aquarium, but that the state will pay to rent it from him, according to local community members.

  • Per a member of the board of that group, the developer is telling people that “he’s going to own the building and the state’s going to rent it from him.”

The hidden provision in the 2017 budget directs $253,794 to build a satellite aquarium on Blake Farms, a private development in Pender county. However, the state has almost no information about the project and a local group involved with the state’s aquariums heard about it “through the grapevine,” according to WRAL.

Republicans are putting their donors ahead of North Carolina taxpayers. The provision, and now Trask’s reported comments, raise serious concerns that North Carolina tax dollars are going to prop up and drive up the value of a private development and pad the bottom line of its owner at a time when Republicans in Raleigh are underfunding public education.

“Republicans in the General Assembly snuck in a sweetheart deal that gives hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to a GOP megadonor and private developer,” said NCDP Executive Director Kimberly Reynolds. “From a party that rails against pork-barrel spending, this blatant give away to a rich donor to help increase his property’s value is galling.”

BACKGROUND

WRAL: Some say state-financed aquarium planned for private development a bit fishy
By Travis Fain
October 8, 2017

RALEIGH, N.C. — Questions surround a proposed state aquarium that would help anchor a private development in Pender County.

The state department that runs aquariums says it has almost no information about the project. Little seems to be written down beyond a few sentences in the state budget setting aside six figures in taxpayer money to get the project rolling.

Legislators who helped get that funding disagree on whether the state would also cover the much higher future costs to build and operate the facility.

The developer is cagey about those long-term plans but confirmed Friday it was his idea to build a public aquarium amid the homes and shopping centers he’s developing in Scotts Hill.

The project took members of the North Carolina Aquarium Society, which raises private money to bolster public funding at the state’s four existing aquariums, by surprise when they heard about it “through the grapevine,” board member Rick Willetts said.

“Why are we opening an attraction on a private development?” Willetts asked. “I’m sure there’s a lot of other developers who would love to have the state come in and fund some of their development as well.”

‘A win-win’

This project went went largely unnoticed in June when legislators tucked $253,794 in planning funds for it into the state budget.

That budget, and later documents, say $300,000 is dedicated to the project, but that figure was a mistake.

The issue came up again last week when lawmakers tweaked the budget so the money could be used not just for planning, but to draw up designs and seek construction permits. In both cases, the budget language laid out a location for the new aquarium: Blake Farms, a mega-development put together by Raiford G. Trask III.

The facility has been described as a “satellite aquarium” with a focus on shellfish aquaculture.

Trask, a generous campaign donor to North Carolina Democrats and Republicans alike, said the aquarium idea was his. Former state Rep. Chris Millis, a Pender County Republican who resigned unexpectedly last month citing undefined personal reasons, carried the idea to Raleigh.

That Millis worked to include the project in the budget took some of his colleagues by surprise.

“This is just so out of character for him,” said Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford, who was one of the first to question the aquarium project. “He questions every thing in the budget that smells of pork.”

Harrison called the aquarium a boondoggle and said the state needs to better fund existing locations if it has money to build a new one.

Neel Lattimore, the department’s director of communications, said the agency doesn’t have any written records on the project, apart from an email Millis sent Secretary Susi Hamilton in July. Millis forwarded Hamilton a brief description of the project that he’d previously sent a reporter. He told the reporter he was “working collaboratively on the idea” with department officials and other local legislators.

Lattimore said Friday there was no collaboration on the department’s end.

“They didn’t come to us and ask us to cooperate or anything,” he said.

Willetts, who lives in the area and said he knows Raiford Trask, said the developer is telling people that “he’s going to own the building and the state’s going to rent it from him.” Willetts said he met with Trask after hearing of the project and was told “basically this was a done deal, and nobody could stop it.”

Willetts pointed with concern to the bill used to change the appropriation on this project Thursday. It was a technical corrections bill, making dozens of unrelated changes. At least one legislator who said he was concerned with the aquarium language also said he voted for it because he favored other parts of the bill.

“It had all the Christmas ornaments in the world hung on the bill,” Willetts said. “I’m very disappointed that this thing has been ramrodded through.”

Read the full article here.

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