09/26/07 — Northern end residents want answers to growth

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Northern end residents want answers to growth

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on September 26, 2007 2:04 PM

With low turnout and at times, seemingly little interest, it now appears as though Wayne County residents were just saving their best for last, as more than two dozen people turned out for the sixth and final county commission town hall meeting Tuesday night at Charles B. Aycock High School.

"This was the best one, I think, of all the meetings," Commissioner Efton Sager said. "A lot of issues were covered tonight."

And perhaps even more importantly, many of those in attendance felt those issues were covered completely and honestly.

"I was impressed," said former county school superintendent Darron Flowers of Fremont. "I thought it was informative and that the answers were good. I thought it was very productive."

Specific questions ranged from the speed limit on Wayne Memorial Drive, to whether there will be an access point from N.C. 111 to the much-anticipated U.S. 70 bypass (the answer is, there won't be), to whose responsibility it is to clean and maintain roadside ditches.

Other residents were interested in recreation and whether the county had any plans to help fund any parks or recreation activities, particularly in the northern end.

And, county Manager Lee Smith said, while that is currently not part of its budget, the county will be doing a study to determine what parks and recreation resources are available, which ones are being used and what is needed.

Other questions focused on residents' concerns about annexation -- something the commissioners can do little about -- and on the northern end's need for help with utilities and other infrastructure-type projects.

"That's a big issue," Smith said, of the latter.

He explained that currently, representatives from the county and all the municipalities are meeting regularly to begin the development of a countywide utility master plan that show what exists, where future expansion is likely to occur and how that can be absorbed.

"Some of the fastest residential growth is in the northern and western parts of Wayne County," Smith said. "We want to partner with the north and be creative to get things done."

Topping that list of things that need to get done, though, residents said, are the schools -- in particular, Norwayne Middle and Charles B. Aycock High.

"What can you tell us to expect (in terms of school construction and renovation)?" Flowers asked. "We've been talking about next year for the last eight years."

Smith answered that he's hoping to have a plan ready by the end of October for the commissioners and the school board to begin working on.

But, he added, it won't just contain school projects. Other county capital needs, such as the jail, the libraries, the Department of Social Services, the Health Department and Services on Aging also will be included.

"We only have so much revenue, and we have to try and plan for all the county's capital projects. The year you build a $43 million jail, you're not going to build a high school," Smith said. "But I see in a couple of months, the county commissioners and the school board members in a room with their priority list."

Flowers persisted, however, saying that he hopes other needs like the jail don't take precedence over the schools.

"Why shouldn't schools be No. 1? Everything else has come first throughout the years. Why shouldn't the schools be the first priority?" he asked. "We're going to have kids sitting on top of kids if we don't do something."

But, Smith continued, addressing the school system's growth is going to take more than just settling on a construction timeline.

The key, he said, will be building with expansion in mind -- building core areas such as media centers, auditoriums, cafeterias and gyms large enough to accommodate growth, so that in the future, all that has to be added are classrooms.

"The design is an important factor," Smith said. "Don't base it on current enrollment. Look at the growth pattern."

He also said that the commissioners and the school board will likely discuss other methods of managing growth, such as policies on mobile unit classrooms, re-assignments and redistricting.

Still, one of the first steps in the process will be settling on the financing package, using what school board member Dave Thomas described as the "four-legged stool" -- the possible quarter-cent sales tax, either general obligation bonds or certificates of participation, lottery funds and eventual Medicaid savings.

But, Smith cautioned, without the support of county residents, little will be able to accomplished.

"It really comes down to what the taxpayers are willing to fund," he said.