01/01/07 — Schools, other projects on agenda

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Schools, other projects on agenda

By Andrew Bell
Published in News on January 1, 2007 1:48 PM

As Lee Smith begins his fifth year as county manager, a school facilities plan is still on his priority list -- as are many other county projects that could mean higher tax bills in future years for county residents.

But even though progress has been made and the county commissioners and school board are on the right track to resolving the school facilities issue, Smith said he still is not sure voters will get a chance to decide how to finance improvements on the May ballot.

"I think we've done what we said we were going to do," Smith said referring to getting the school board and county commissioners to meet and form a facilities plan. "I'm glad that the process developed and now we've got the committees working to get information back to the boards. I think the process gets people to talk. We've had discussions in groups, and we've gotten the community involved."

But all of that progress -- and the resulting discussion about how much and where the money should be spent -- might not be enough to get all the work done to meet the March deadline to get a bond referendum on the May ballot, Smith warned.

After the county hired consultant Evergreen Solutions to study the schools' facilities needs and that group issued its findings to the boards, the school board approved a $90 million facilities plan that would build new and improve existing schools across the county.

Both boards agreed that financing such a large project could require a bond referendum next May. Smith said he is unsure of whether there has been enough progress to put the issue on the ballot for the next election.

"I think they'll be hard pressed to have it before March, but I remain optimistic that they will get it done," Smith said.

After the Evergreen report was issued to both boards, Smith said progress was stalled because conflicting schedules didn't allow all of the commissioners and school board members to meet quickly. That plus other scheduling setbacks have put the facilities issue 60 days behind schedule, he added.

But unlike last year when Smith said the facilities issue had not gotten to a point where he felt the school board and commissioners had steps they could accomplish, he said 2006 has been much more promising.

"I can say this year -- at least it's moving, and we have a plan in place," Smith said Friday.

And for right now, talking and listening to one another is what will allow both bodies to move forward toward the goal of creating an affordable facilities plan and improving the county's schools, Smith said.

"There has to be more empathy for one another. We need to educate on what each other's roles are. I have yet to see where both boards sit at the table and discuss funding and how the schools operate and all of those things. It's doesn't have to be negative. It gives both boards a chance to talk about their concerns and ask questions and gain an understanding."

After the subcommittees dealing with the educational process, facilities, real estate and finance present their information to the master facilities plan team, Smith said he hopes an open discussion between the boards will be the next step.

"The single thing I want the boards to do -- they should both sit down at the table and discuss the issues without emotions. I think they can be open and honest and discuss. That's the only way we could get anywhere, but it's a difficult process because people can get defensive," Smith said.

The county commissioners are granted by state law the power to tax. The commissioners use that property tax income to take care of the needs of the county departments and the schools.

The commissioners do not have the authority to run the schools.

In years past when the commissioners have suggested or questioned how the school board spends its money, the questions have caused friction between the boards, but Smith said the issue is more about accountability than wanting to control the schools.

"I don't think the school board realizes that the commissioners don't want to run the schools. They don't want to micro-manage them. They just want to be able to defend why they gave them money for something when they are asked on the street or in church or wherever else," he said.

But schools will not be the only issue facing the county commissioners in the next year, Smith added.

"In the next 12 months, they will have to make some of the most difficult decisions Wayne County has ever seen," he said.

Aside from the $90 million school facilities plan, there are millions of dollars of capital needs facing the county.

The Wayne County Office Building at the intersection of Herman and Ash streets is not large enough to house the Department of Social Services and the Health Department, Smith said. The same situation faces the county's Services on Aging building on James Street. The county will soon issue requests for proposal for all three departments to determine the square footage needed for each. The county can then determine the price of building new structures or renovating others.

County officials have already signed contracts with Brennan and Associates to assess the possibility of building a new jail. The existing county jail continuously has more inmates than beds, which is unacceptable, Smith said.

With such a large plate of needs, Smith said the final cost could have an impact on residents' pocketbooks.

"These decisions are going to be emotional for people. People don't want a tax increase because people don't want things to change, but things have to change," he said.

But Smith said he doesn't believe that change will come this year.

"I wouldn't necessarily recommend a tax increase," he said.

Even if a bond referendum passes next May, Smith said the county would not start borrowing the money for another nine months. Then the money would be borrowed over several years, which means a tax increase could come in 2008 or 2009.

"It could happen," Smith said.