01/02/08 — County agenda set for next year

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County agenda set for next year

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 2, 2008 2:18 PM

A new animal shelter is being raised on Clingman Street. There appears to be progress on addressing school facility needs. And the county commissioners have been presented with a comprehensive plan for growth for the next 20 to 30 years.

For Wayne County, it's been an eventful 12 months. But County Manager Lee Smith said he expects 2008 to be even busier now that a foundation has been laid.

"2007, in a lot of ways, was really about process," he said. "Now, in 2008, I see the completion of some things and the starting of others.

"2008's going to be busy."

And that work will begin almost immediately, with the county Board of Commissioners expected to hold its annual planning retreat in late January or early February.

Much of the work that is to be done will be based around the county's comprehensive plan that was put together early last year and vetted during an open meeting in May.

Included in that plan are recommended policies and action steps in areas of transportation, economic development, education, housing and neighborhoods, public safety, agricultural preservation and growth management and intergovernmental cooperation.

The commission is expected to approve the comprehensive plan shortly after its retreat.

Also expected to be addressed at the retreat are the county's myriad of capital projects, including school facilities, the jail, Services on Aging, the Health Department and the Department of Social Services. The latter four are ones that were studied in 2007, and ones that Smith soon hopes to have on a long-term timeline.

Efforts on school facilities, however, are already under way.

In December, the school board approved a $23 million phase one plan proposed by Smith. It covers, though, only a fraction of the school board's $105.1 million ($120 million including operating expenses) long-term facilities schedule.

It also includes several policy recommendations, including mobile classroom guidelines, an annual current expense policy and requirements that efficiency and cost-effectiveness studies be done before any new school construction takes place.

Now the commission and the school board will need to come together on a plan for phase two -- one county officials have said will focus not only on school facilities, but also on issues such as the graduation rate.

"We're going to have to continue to work with the schools, but it's going to take a while. We're trying to look out for the taxpayers and anything we can do to keep the tax rate down," commission Chairman Bud Gray said. "I know children come first, but if we run the taxpayers out of business, we don't have anybody to pay for them. It's all about money."

But that desire to avoid future tax hikes is stemming partly from the fact that the commission was forced to raise property taxes in 2007 from 73.5 cents per $100 value to 76.4 cents per $100 value.

"That was necessary," former commission chairman John Bell said. "We have never raised taxes just to raise them. We try everything to keep from doing it."

Other issues that the county began work on in 2007 that officials expect will carry over, include economic development and agricultural preservation.

In 2007, the Wayne County Development Alliance, formed in mid-2006, helped bring the potential of more than 1,000 new jobs to Wayne County. Recent announcements include AT&T opening a broadband technical support call center with 350 jobs, Reuel Inc. adding 50 new jobs and both Case Farms and AAR expanding with about 500 positions each over the next five years.

"We've had some great economic news," Smith said.

But now, he continued, there will have to be new steps taken in 2008 to ensure further growth.

The results of two recently completed studies -- one assessing how the three towns in northern Wayne County can work together to attract business and industry, and one examining where future industrial sites might be located -- must be given a closer look.

In that same vein, Smith continued, the county must begin considering the construction of another shell building or at least the use of a virtual shell building program.

"We really need to look at product development," he said.

Also included in that effort, is the county's workforce development program, which is being run out of Wayne Community College by the newly hired Diane Ivey.

Having begun the program in the fall, Smith expects to see it paying dividends in 2008 as it begins to reach into the high schools, helping students identify the skills they need to be employable upon graduation.

"That was a big step," he said. "Industries have been demanding higher skills of young people and those basic skills have just not been there. I think this is a way to address that, but the rest will be up to the school board."

Also related to economic development is the need to improve the county's utilities, including roads and water and sewer.

"I think utilities are going to be a big issue. And right now, water is on everbody's mind," Smith said.

Already plans are under way to bring a number of surrounding counties together to try to address that issue through potential resources such as a regional reservoir.

"We've got to think 25 to 50 years out, but it can't just be Wayne County. It can't just be the cities in Wayne County," he said.

Agricultural preservation -- another issue that took the spotlight in 2007 with first annual Wayne County Ag Expo in November -- also is expected to be further addressed in 2008 when the county cooperative extension service begins a farmland preservation study.

Other issues that began in 2007 and will continue to receive attention in 2008 are the state General Assembly's Medicaid relief efforts, the efforts to open up all of U.S. 117 to tractor-trailer traffic, the beginning of the U.S. 70 bypass around Goldsboro, and the construction of the $1.8 million animal shelter on Clingman Street, which is being helped by $500,000 worth of donations and pledges from county residents.

"We've stayed pretty much on point (from our 2007 retreat). I think what we've done so far is a good start and should kick 2008 off to a good start," Bell said.

But the key, Smith added, will be the county's continued efforts to keep the community involved through the use of the county Web site and the commissioner's town hall meetings, which he expects will begin again in the spring as they lobby for support for a quarter-cent local sales tax, likely to be put to a referendum in May.

"I think you're going to have to have some public involvement (on the schools, the sales tax and the comprehensive plan)," he said. "We made a concerted effort over the last year and a half to get information out, and people have been asking very specific questions about specific projects. That tells me they're getting it. I think the conversation has begun.

"I've been here seven years and I'm going to start off Jan. 1, 2008, the most optimistic I've been since I've been here."