07/07/11 — County to look at capital projects

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County to look at capital projects

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 7, 2011 1:46 PM

Wayne County's proposed $255.6 million capital improvement plan spreads a variety of projects ranging in cost from a few hundred thousand dollars to $72 million over a five-year period from 2012 to 2016. However, County Manager Lee Smith has warned county commissioners that the plan needs to be revised in response to reduced revenues and other economic stresses on the county budget.

It will come down to what the county considers a necessity and affordable, he said.

"You will not be able to afford it (all) without major tax increases," Smith said. "I do believe, based on what I hear from the general public, my board and even the school board, they know they need 'x,' but realize there is a question of affordability."

State and federal legislation has "stood the plan on its ear," he said. However, three projects -- a new Mount Olive library, renovations and construction at Norwayne and Eastern Wayne middle schools and a new home for Services on Aging -- are expected to escape any shifting of the plan barring any additional major economic jolts.

Additional major schools projects, a new home for the Department of Social Services and a new jail are among the projects that will gobble up a large chunk of the plan's dollars. Smith said he still hears comments about a county agricultural center. However, the anticipated $15 million price tag has caused it to be moved out further in the plan.

"The board may decide that is priority one, but I don't think it is affordable," he said.

Whatever the plan ends up looking like, it will need to be one that can be adapted to change, he said.

Smith will bring the county's facilities committee together in August to review the plan and follow up with meetings with commissioners. His recommendations will include commissioners asking the school board to review its facilities plan as well.

Smith said he wants public input, too, and sees the meetings as a means of educating the public on the projects and their associated costs.

While the process is unfolding, Smith plans to at least get the paperwork and design work started on the $3.85 million Steele Memorial Library project in Mount Olive and for the $15 million in renovations and construction at Norwayne and Eastern Wayne middle schools.

Smith said that when commissioners meet next Tuesday, he will present them with a contract for the design work on the library. Renovations on the old Belk's department store could start in fiscal year 2012-13, he said.

Bids for the Eastern Wayne and Norwayne projects are expected back by Aug. 1, with construction possibly starting by the first of the year.

Fiscal year 2013 projects $6.5 million for central attendance area schools, $3.85 million for Spring Creek Elementary and $6.6 million for Charles B. Aycock High School, while 2015 projects $35.4 million for Spring Creek High School and Grantham School.

"What I want to hear from the board is what is their priority?" Smith said. "That being said, a big part of what we are going to do is schools. If the schools' needs are greater than what I think, it may change what I do on my side. I might say, 'I really can't afford Health Department and Department of Social Services.' Maybe I have to figure it out or do I not do it at all? I don't know.

"I think we have to do this hand in hand with the school board. My concern is that now that the Legislature, we have had cuts in sales tax, will they continue to change the (funding) formulas? If they do and I continue to see it fall, then where is the money going to come from? I think I have a responsibility to the commissioners, and they to the public, to say, 'Here is what is going to cost.'"

That is why public meetings will be important, he said.

"That is where parents are going to have to stand up and say, 'We want these projects or we do not,'" Smith said. "Then the board of commissioners and board of education are going to have to decide do they do what their constituents say. If that is true, it may mean build to this point. In other words, what is their tolerance to cost? Everybody will say, 'I don't want any additional costs.' Well, nor do I, but we are not going to have a choice."

Smith said that unfortunately some parts of the plan have stalled, but that it could have still been for the best.

"I am glad we were conservative and kind of held back a little bit," he said. "I know in the county and schools there are some buildings that need to be improved, but we have to take it one day at the time, too. The game isn't over yet. Just look at the economy. I mean revenues are flat. They are not growing. Everything has changed. All of the rules have changed -- the Legislature and things they are doing. I think it is a necessity to stop.

"I hear a lot about, 'you need to plan, you need to plan.' You do, but you also have to be aware that as the rules change you have to be able to adapt and I think that we have got to adapt our capital plan. Our board has got to say what is important to us. They have obviously said that the senior center is important. Based upon Census data, it is extremely important."