Legal fees pile up in Canton civil suit
The legal battle to keep Camp Hope from falling into private hands has been a long and expensive endeavor, but one that Canton leaders are determined to continue fighting as long as money is available.
A civil suit from an Asheville couple threatened Canton’s ownership of the historic property leading to a weeks-long trial in May. Though the town left the trial victorious, the couple has now filed for appeal.
Up to now, the town has spent in excess of $130,000 in legal fees — money that has come straight out of town coffers.
The mayor and four aldermen have committed to paying the fees associated with the appeal, which includes filing a cross appeal. If the appeals court agrees to hear arguments, the town may have to pay a lawyer to go to Raleigh.
Alderman Jimmy Flynn stressed the town is not out of money and that the board has never discussed stopping the legal battle once they reach a certain financial threshold. But as the fees pile up, the aldermen must question, how much is too much of a burden on taxpayers?
“Each time we take another step we have to ask ourselves if we can afford that,” Flynn said. “We’ve decided to move forward with this appeal, but once this appeal comes to a close we don’t know, win or lose, what the next step will be.”
Some town leaders, including Flynn, hope that others in the county who support their mission to keep Camp Hope will step forward and help monetarily.
“Before we ever even went to trial, this board basically stated we will fight this as long as we can, but at some point we will need financial help,” Flynn said.
Mayor Mike Ray agreed.
“It is true that Camp Hope is for the whole community but at this point we are footing the bill to make sure that happens. It would be nice to see some community support for us monetarily for us to maintain possession thereof,” he said.
Friends of Camp Hope, a group of about 20 volunteers who formed to partner with the town to improve and promote Camp Hope, will be hosting its first fundraiser, the Shining Rock Music Festival, Sept. 14. Tracy O’Neill, who is a founding member of Friends of Camp Hope, took the idea for the fundraiser to the town board Tuesday for approval.
Despite the appeal, O’Neill said the group, which is working to reach nonprofit status, needs money so they can continue work at Camp Hope. Since the end of the trial, the group has put forth more than 600 volunteer hours, cleaning up the camp and readying it for booked events such as weddings and reunions.
Flynn questioned what the money raised from the music festival will be used for at the camp. Using the money toward expensive capital improvements, such as re-roofing some of the buildings, may be too premature, he said.
“I’d hate it if someone gave money and it went to a private individual,” Flynn said, pointing to the uncertainty of the appeal. “We don’t own it free and clear.”
Alderman Patrick Willis echoed Flynn's concern.
"I just don’t want to see everybody to put all this work in because it would be a major shame if these people took the camp," he said.
Instead, Flynn asked if they would be willing to donate some of their monies raised to the town for legal fees.
"If you're going to raise money, why not give it to the town to help the legal fight. That’s just as important as anything. We are going to fight as long as we can fight it, but I'm not going to ask the taxpayers alone to fight this battle," he said.
O'Neil said while he is not against the idea of helping the town offset legal costs, that is not the sole focus of their organization.
"We set up the basis of our organization to raise awareness and protect the camp and preserve it," he said.
But because preserving the camp hinges on what happens in court, helping offset taxpayer money that goes into the court fees is also part of the cause.
"Absolutely that’s part of our intent, it's just not our total focus and basis for forming our group, but that has to be part of our goal because that’s part of retaining the camp," O'Neill said.
Money from the upcoming fundraiser will likely be spent on small projects that still need to be done at the camp to make it user friendly to the public, but he said no large scale capital improvements will be done.
The Friends of Camp Hope plan to use their position as a platform to raise awareness of the town's need for financial assistance and possibly set up an online donation system.
“The time has come that the rest of the concerned citizens in the county, not just Canton taxpayers, come forth with some financial help. It’s just a matter of my feelings that the Canton taxpayers should not fight this battle alone,” Flynn said.