02/05/14 — Wayne County commissioners talk about new schools

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Wayne County commissioners talk about new schools

By Steve Herring
Published in News on February 5, 2014 1:46 PM

Wayne County commissioners Tuesday said they are ready for the Board of Education to proceed with $12.3 million in renovation projects, but balked at the idea of spending more than $50 million for two new schools.

One commissioner, Joe Daughtery, even made a motion to authorize the money for the school board to proceed with the renovation projects.

But after more than two hours of discussion, commissioners decided instead to ask the school board for the latest figures for the renovations.

Rather than adjourning their nearly nine-hour meeting, commissioners recessed it until 10 a.m. Monday when they plan to continue the discussion.

They also instructed officials with Davenport & Co., the county's financial consultants, to use $30 million instead of $50 million to develop new possible funding scenarios for the two new middle schools.

"We have many needs in the county," Daughtery said. "We need to look at affordability."

If the county spends $50 million or more for two schools, there are other projects that will be left out, he said.

Daughtery said the commissioners have taken a lot of criticism for looking at schools and coming up with their own plan. People took that out of context as commissioners attempting to take over the schools, he said.

Commissioner Ray Mayo said the county would establish the budget, but that the school board has complete control over the plans.

The two-hour work session with Davenport's Ted Cole to discuss the schools, the county's $247 million capital improvement plan and financing quickly strayed from the company's proposals.

As presented, Davenport's budget comparison looked at three scenarios -- two high performance (energy efficient) schools and one traditional school.

Under one proposal, the county would borrow money to build a high performance school or a traditional school.

Another proposal called for a private company to build the school and lease it back to the county -- an idea that did not appear to interest commissioners.

Commissioner Ray Mayo suggested that the county could save money on the projects by using design/build just as it did for the new Senior Center and for Steele Memorial Library in Mount Olive.

In design/build, an architect and general contractor form a team that works under one contract with the project owner, in this case the county, providing both design and construction services.

But the real sticking point was the nearly $55 million to $64 million projected by Davenport to build the two schools.

Davenport based its numbers on figures provided by architectural firm FirstFloor Inc. .

Commissioners were worried as well that the funds the school board is counting on to build the schools, lottery and sales tax proceeds, are not secure. And if those funds diminish or vanish altogether, the county would still be responsible for paying the debt associated with the school.

Commissioner Steve Keen said commissioners also needed to know what the annual operating costs for the schools will be.

The School Board is planning to build new middle schools in the Grantham and Spring Creek communities.

It also has three priority renovation projects -- $1.8 million for the central attendance area, $3.85 million for Spring Creek Elementary and $6.6 million for Charles B. Aycock High School.

The schools have the money available to do the renovation projects without having to borrow.

"I am prepared today to go ahead and authorize the school board to start these three projects," Daughtery said. "We can wait two weeks. We can wait two years, but the bottom line is they need to be done.

"They have the monies. We already have it in the capital improvement plan to pay as you go. Let's just put an addendum to that stating that we would be able to reimburse ourselves if need be from loan proceeds, if we decided to go that route."

Cole said that when considering reimbursement that the board is spending its own money and would later replace it with borrowed money.

However, in this case, the money being spent is the school board's money.

"Unless you want to take that on as a debt of the county, you probably would not want to do the reimbursement on that because there you would have the school board spending it," Cole said. "You borrow the money later to reimburse their coffers. I am not sure you want to do that."

Daughtery said in that case, he would not want to do a reimbursement.

Daughtery said he was ready to "send a clear message" to the school board that commissioners are ready to take some action.

"We are ready to go ahead and authorize you to do these three improvements," he said. "Hire an architect and get it done."

Daughtery went on to make a motion authorizing the school board to spend the $12.3 million from its reserves.

"I know it is easy say for them to go ahead, but there are certain steps they have got to go through before going out," Commissioner John Bell said.

The school board is waiting on direction from commissioners, Daughtery said.

Commissioner Bill Pate said he did not disagree with the board's direction, but that he first wanted to see the school board's most recent cost estimates.

Keen and Mayo agreed.

Mayo said the numbers for the three projects were "not set" and were actually "old figures."

The figures need to verified and substantiated, he said.

"Somebody needs to go to the Board of Education and ask them by the next commissioners' meeting on Feb. 18 that they verify, as close as possible, these three numbers," Mayo said. "I don't want to get into these things and all of a sudden they say, 'Oh, my gosh. It is going to cost us $20 million rather than $12 (million)."

County Attorney Borden Parker said he had planned to suggest that the board recess until Monday.

"So if you can get that information between now and Monday the information that is being requested," he said.

Daughtery agreed and withdrew his motion.

Bell suggested it might be beneficial for commissioners to have a "little small meeting" with the school board so that it could be at the table when a decision is made.

"I think they would feel more comfortable than if we just tell them, 'Here is what we want you to fund or build,'" Bell said.

Since commissioners are only talking about the three renovation projects, it is not imperative that they have all of the figures for the two new schools by Monday, Mayo said.