02/14/08 — Schools top list for 2008 in county

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Schools top list for 2008 in county

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 14, 2008 2:08 PM

When the Wayne County Board of Commissioners adjourned its annual retreat Wednesday afternoon, the priorities that it had set for the next 12 months came as little surprise to County Manager Lee Smith.

Now, he explained, as he and the county department heads work through the 2008-09 budget, it will be up to them to begin narrowing the focus of some of these broad priorities based on what can be afforded in the coming fiscal year.

And so far, he said, "I think we're pretty much on track with what the board wants us to do."

At the top of the list for most of the commissioners was, of course, education.

"I think education needs to be our No. 1 priority," Commissioner Jack Best said. "And I'm talking about educating all our children."

When asked by Commissioner John Bell to clarify what "education" entails, Best explained that he didn't mean "just schools."

"I'm talking about teaching Johnny how to read. We need to teach him basic math," Best said. "You've got to put the horse in front of the cart and let him pull it, and education is the horse."

In that discussion, other commissioners also included technical and vocation programs and the county's library system.

Helping to address those issues in the next year will be the possible start of the $23 million school facilities plan that was approved late last year, as well as discussions about the next step, which is likely to include academic programs as well as facilities.

Also included in that broad idea of education, they explained, will be the continued implementation of the county's new workforce development program and a potential new county dropout prevention program. Additionally, the commissioners are likely to at least begin looking at the funding of improvements to library facilities and services, particularly in Mount Olive.

Coming in at No. 2 on the priority list for most of the commissioners was water and sewer infrastructure.

"I think education needs to be our No. 1 priority with water and sewer right behind it," Best said.

The challenge, though, the commissioners agreed, will be planning out the county's infrastructure, particularly its water and sewer, far enough into the future to make a difference in 50 years, not just 20.

"I still say there's going to come a day when somebody goes to get a drink of water and it's not going to be there without some thorough planning," Price said.

And as part of that process, he continued, the county also needs to begin looking more closely at land use and how it can regulate growth, if necessary, to protect agricultural, industrial and residential areas.

"Plan so you control your growth in the right areas," he said.

Along those same lines, Smith noted, will be the need to begin working with municipalities on their zoning decisions as they continue to annex out into the county, affecting farmland and other current uses.

"We need to step up on this annexation issue," he said.

Fortunately, the commissioners acknowledged, some of these issues are already being addressed through the comprehensive land use plan that was created last year and is scheduled to be adopted in March.

They also noted that as soon as Goldsboro completes its water and sewer master plan, then the county's utilities commission can begin putting together a comprehensive map to include not only Goldsboro, but also Mount Olive, Fremont, Eureka, Pikeville and all the sanitary districts in order to more easily plan for future growth needs. Also on track in March is a meeting to begin looking at water usage from a regional perspective.

From there, though, the commissioners' individual priorities began to splinter -- even as they all agreed on the importance of the topics.

Some want the third focus to be on transportation issues, such as the U.S. 70 bypass scheduled to begin around Goldsboro sometime this year, and the improvement of U.S. 117 so that I-795 can run from I-95 in Wilson County to I-40 in Sampson County.

Others want to focus next on economic growth, job creation and the expansion of the tax base -- something the Wayne County Development Alliance is currently working on as it continues to digest a recently completed study on potential industrial sites, as well as looks at constructing a new shell building or the use of a virtual shell building program.

Also high on the list was the completion of several projects currently underway or about to begin, such as the Jeffrey's Building renovations, the animal shelter, a new water tower for the ParkEast industrial park and some minor work at the county emergency medical services and jail facilities.

But, said Commission Chairman Bud Gray, the county's most immediate priority should be the need for a new communications system connecting all of the public safety departments in the county.

It's a project, Smith explained, that was approved and begun several years ago, but was delayed last year by the changes in how 911 fees are allocated to the counties by the state General Assembly. Now, he explained, it'll likely take about $7 million -- most of which will have to be financed because of the loss of revenue -- to finish it.

But, he emphasized, it's money that needs to be spent.

"If you had to ask me what need is the most pressing, I'd say communications," he said. "We have a good system, but the problem is, it's 40-plus years old and we don't have good equipment."