12/29/06 — Price - Schools remain priority

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Price - Schools remain priority

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on December 29, 2006 1:50 PM

When Atlas Price took over as chairman of the Wayne County Board of Commissioners a year ago, he had specific goals he wanted to accomplish. Although advances were made toward each, none came to fruition by year's end.

But Price, who stepped down as chairman when Commissioner John Bell took the reins this month, said he remains determined to see the projects completed.

"As a commissioner and the same as a citizen, we want things done pretty fast, but the wheels of government don't spin that fast," Price said.

Price had hoped to find a solution to the county's school-building needs, build a new animal shelter and help guide the U.S. 70 corridor commission to make improvements to the existing highway and prepare for planned bypasses.

But the planning and coordination that is necessary for such large projects takes time, said Price, who has served as either as a county commissioner or a school board member for more than 25 years.

Price said he had hoped to make more progress toward a school-building plan.

A year ago, commissioners hired Evergreen Solutions to examine the schools' needs and the finances of both the board of commissioners and the board of education. The consulting firm issued its report in May. Soon after, the school board approved a $90 million facilities plan.

Since then, both boards have met several times separately and in community meetings to hear concerns from parents and advisory council members and subcommittees are now gathering details on how to make a building plan work. But it has been a slow process and whether a proposal can be ready to put before the public on the May ballot remains in question.

"It didn't move near as fast as I hoped, but I understand why," Price said.

Getting both boards to the table during the summer proved more difficult than expected, Price said, noting that it required the coordinating of the schedules of 15 people. Even when the boards managed to meet, they sometimes found common ground difficult to reach, he added.

"I think any concerns should have been aired out more," Price said, noting that more effort should have been expended in the past to mend fences between the two boards. The law gives both boards power, but requires them to work together, he pointed out. The school board is charged with ensuring a good education for all students, but it depends on the commissioners for building money. The commissioners are charged with setting a tax rate and making sure every dollar is well-spent.

"It boils down to accountability," Price said. "The money the commissioners have collected from the public is the public's money and we have to be responsible to the public for every dollar. We just ask them to be accountable for what they get and what they do with it."

But the commissioners also have a stake in the future of the county's schools, Price said. Public education is one of their responsibilities and it helps underpin the county's economy. New businesses do not want to locate in a county with poor schools. Without new businesses, the county's tax base cannot grow. Also, a county with a poorly educated workforce is not likely to lure many new jobs.

Price said he does not believe enough was done in 2006 to educate the public on the need to spend money on school construction. Unless the public votes to let the county sell bonds to raise the money for schools, there likely won't be any bricks laid, he said. Neither the schools nor the county has enough money in reserve to pay such a huge bill.

"I don't think the public in general has accepted it. I hear on a regular basis from people that they can't vote for a bond referendum," Price said.

He said he has heard from many residents that they just do not see the need to spend $90 million on improvements.

What would happen if a bond referendum failed?

"If it doesn't pass, we'll have to go back to the table and regroup," he said.

As for his other two chief goals for the past year, Price said he believes advances have been made on both a new animal shelter and plans for an improved U.S. 70.

Public pressure helped boost work on a new animal shelter. Price said commissioners hope to have the $1.2 million proposal ready for bidding within two months and the entire building ready by the end of 2007.

He noted that some county residents are adamant about the need for a new shelter while others are indifferent.

"There are some people who don't care about an animal shelter and how the animals are kept, but we have to look at the factors. The shelter is a health problem for the public and the animals," he said.

The existing shelter is 50 years old. No location for a new shelter has been announced, but an undisclosed site has been surveyed and once results come back, county officials say they can begin the process of bidding out a contract and clearing land for construction.

"There are still some ifs. If we take care of those, we should be able to bid it out within 60 days," Price said. "I see it being completed next year. Absolutely."

It will take many more years for the proposed U.S. 70 corridor from Clayton to Morehead City to be built. But Price said Wayne County and other counties along the route have come a long way in the past year toward developing a clear idea of what the roadway should be. During the past year, a U.S. 70 Corridor Commission was formed to allow leaders in each county to work together on related issues.

The highway is important, not just as a way for travelers to reach the coast, Price said. It is a key component of economic development for every county it passes through, he said. The goal for 2007 is to continue to buy right-of-ways and create zoning restrictions along the corridor to protect it until the state Department of Transportation has the funding to finish the project, Price said.