03/04/09 — Commission calls meeting for questions

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Commission calls meeting for questions

By Steve Herring
Published in News on March 4, 2009 1:46 PM

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Commissioner Jack Best, right, leans in to ask County Manager Lee Smith, left, a question as Chairman Bud Gray looks over materials handled during the board's meeting with the Board of Education.

Wayne County commissioners Tuesday afternoon had plenty of questions about the rapidly approaching schools facilities project -- questions they directed at each other instead of the school board that just minutes before had left a joint meeting.

Commissioners expressed apprehension about basing the county's ability to pay off debt associated with the plan on sales tax revenues.

They added they wanted the money in hand before signing off on the projects.

The two boards had practiced their best company manners during a Tuesday lunch meeting at which commissioners were briefed on the plan.

The meeting had been requested by commissioners.

Financing generated much of the discussion in light of Gov. Beverly Perdue's decision to transfer $50 million in lottery funds to a special fund that could be used to help the state plug a $2 billion budget shortfall.

The school board, at commissioners' urging, had already started the process to obligate some $5 million in lottery funds for its $23 million facilities plan.

School board officials appeared optimistic they would get the money.

However, they floated another way to help pay for the plan should the money not come through.

Over the next two years the schools system will pay down its debt, freeing up those dollars. School board officials suggested using that money, which comes from sales tax proceeds, to pay off the new debt.

Commissioners listened and made few comments during the meeting, and the only decision made was for school board and county manager staff to meet this afternoon to further discuss funding.

During the meeting county finance officer Pam Holt reminded both boards sales tax receipts were drastically down for last October and November and that the trend is expected to continue.

Chairman Bud Gray was ready to adjourn the meeting when Commissioner Andy Anderson raised a question about the board's earlier regular meeting that morning. It was at that point that the school board and staff left.

It was then that commissioners opened a floodgate of questions.

"I can't see wanting to jump out and spend based on sales tax when you know that in the last three to four years the sales tax has not been there," Commissioner Steve Keen. "Is it practical?"

Mrs. Holt said the school board was basing its proposal on the debt "dropping off" over the next two years. It would, she said, "replace old debt with new debt."

Keen also was concerned about declining retail sales.

The facilities plan calls for the county to borrow $14.4 million, and Commissioner Jack Best wanted to know if $2 million in annual sales tax money would be enough to secure the loan.

County Manager Lee Smith said that it would.

Commissioners also were concerned that using the sales tax money would affect the district's ability to pay other debts.

It might be possible, they said, to use the $5 million in lottery monies to do the proposed work at Brogden Middle School at Dudley, Greenwood Middle School and at Mount Olive Middle School in Mount Olive.

Work at Norwayne and Eastern Wayne middle schools might have to be delayed, depending on funding, commissioners said.

Best asked Smith how comfortable he was that the county would get the money.

"When we get it in the bank account," Smith said.

The money belongs to the state until it is transferred to the county, Ms. Holt added.

Best renewed his complaint that the facilities plan is nothing more than a "Band-Aid" approach that fails to address the system's underlying problems.

Best said he had suggested a plan to school board staff, but that the board has "got in their mind they are 100 percent right."

He said the county needs to build five new schools in areas where the population warrants them. That needs to be complemented by tearing down old schools, he said.

"Their plan, in my opinion, is full of holes, and we will be in the same shape we are now in 20 years," Best said. "I don't understand keep adding classrooms and not tearing down any when we have 5 percent less students than we did years ago."

He said the school board has "not ever" addressed issues within the system's central (Goldsboro) district.

"Just building brick and mortar does not answer the question," he said. "The schools are one reason people don't want to come to Goldsboro."

Best said people are prejudiced in the way they look at the central district schools.

"This is not the 1960s or the 1860s," he said.

Best also questioned part of the Eastern Wayne project that would add administrative space.

"I thought we were building classrooms," he said.

Best and Commissioner John Bell said they were "shocked" that the school board had proceeded to let bids for the first three projects without involving commissioners.

"I thought it was to be a joint effort," Bell said.

Best said he thought a memo of understanding between the two boards had spelled out that commissioners would be involved in the process since the county will own the schools.

"Eastern Wayne and Norwayne, they are talking about putting them out for bid in two and a half weeks without knowing where the money is," Best said.

Commissioner Sandra McCullen reminded the board members they had asked for the update on the plan.

"We cannot do more until Lee and Pam come back with the figures," she said.