EAST SPENCER — The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and the Salisbury City Council have agreed to pursue the concept of an inter-local financing agreement to construct a school central office in downtown Salisbury.
During a stakeholders meeting held Thursday, the school board voted 5-2 to move ahead with the concept of financing $6 million through the county and the additional $2 million needed to make the facility large enough for total consolidation through the city. Freshmen board members Chuck Hughes and Josh Wagner cast the dissenting votes.
All four City Council members agreed to direct city staff to work with school officials to collaborate on a proposed inter-local agreement.
During their December meeting, the same five school board members voted to affirm the decision to build on South Main Street, but opted to go back to the original plan for a 62,000 square-foot building that would house all departments.
That vote included a stipulation to ask the city for help with the additional dollars needed for the project.
The facility had been pared down to about 49,000 square feet, which is too small to include the exceptional children’s department, due to the constraints of a $6 million budget set by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners last January.
City Manager Doug Paris said it is possible for the county and city to jointly finance the project, but they would have to partner with the school system.
“That’s the keyword, both would help make this a possibility,” he said.
Paris said council members feel the joint effort would show greater support for the project, not only to the community, but also to the Local Government Commission, which has to agree to let the entities borrow the money on behalf of the school system.
But county commissioners still have to get on board.
Although the entire county board was invited to attend the meeting, only Craig Pierce and Jon Barber showed up to the U-shaped table to discuss the central office. Chad Mitchell attended as a member of the audience.
Pierce questioned the details of the city’s proposed financing.
“I would not be comfortable with the county being hung out for three years of interest-only payments if you’re going to pay the city any principal back,” he said.
School board Chairman Dr. Richard Miller such details have yet to be determined.
“Having seen this for the first time I don’t know what the pleasure of the board would be, that’s why we need to decide if we want to pursue the concept and hopefully have the county commission talk about it,” he said.
City Councilman Brian Miller said the city plans to mirror the same financing deal as the county.
“This is intended to be a partnership … there would be one document with the same set of terms for both parties,” he said. “This is a way for us to get everybody in that building.”
Hughes asked how the $2 million would be paid back.
Richard Miller said there are a number of options, including using sales tax revenue, which is allocated specifically for capital building projects, tapping lottery funds, dipping into the fund balance or receiving help from a benevolent benefactor.
The city has agreed to donate the land and provide parking, estimated to be worth $250,000 each. City officials are also working with the The N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to clean up the contamination at the site at a $20,000 cost.
“The $6 million being provided by the county would be repaid with school system’s own revenue,” Brian Miller said. “We’re already doing more than what the other partner is doing for this project.”
Richard Miller made it clear from the start of Thursday’s meeting that he wanted it to be informal.
He asked those in attendance to sing “Happy Birthday” to Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell and told the men to feel free to take off their suit jackets.
Then, Richard Miller set some ground rules to ensure the meeting ran as smoothly as possible.
The first was that “all elected voices are of value.”
He asked everyone to speak on issues, not particular people.
“We don’t want to get sidetracked on personal issues,” he said.
Lastly, Richard Miller advised everyone to refrain from giving speeches.
“We don’t want to get on any soapboxes,” he said.
Richard Miller asked those in attendance to introduce themselves and explain what they hoped to accomplish during the meeting.
Brian Miller said the City Council wants to solve the problem of a lack of a central office.
“We are here to advocate for a resolution to a problem that’s lasted two decades,” he said. “We are very close, in my opinion, based on where this has gone so far.”
Mayor Paul Woodson agrees the City Council is in “full support” of the project.
“I’m very excited about everything coming together I think we might actually get something done,” he said.
School board member Jean Kennedy said she’d like to see the school board take the gift of the land and parking from the city and move on.
“My objective for our meeting here tonight is for us to overcome this impasse,” she said.
During Barber’s introduction, he asked those who have served at least two terms on a board to raise their hands. More than half did so.
“That shows there is a lot of expertise that exists among the three boards that are here tonight,” he said. “We need to utilize that expertise to get this project to a conclusion.
“If we truly want to move this project forward, beginning tonight, to its completion
“We need to conduct business differently than they conduct business in Washington, the bickering, the one-upmanship needs to go away.”’
Barber said from his standpoint the county board’s commitment to take out $6 million loan on the district’s behalf is still good.
But Pierce feels otherwise. “I’m here tonight not representing the schools, I’m here representing the taxpayers, that’s what I was elected to do and that’s what I’m here for,” he said. “This is not a done deal with the commissioners, that board has changed and with that change is two different votes.”
Pierce said his intent is to work with the school board and City Council to come up with some type of solution for the central office, but it might not be the current proposal.
“As we move forward understand that this is not a $6 million guarantee as Commissioner Barber alluded to.”
Richard Miller asked the board members to participate in two brainstorming exercises. During the first one, he asked them to jot down their reality of the project and share their answers.
School board member Susan Cox said the building is needed.
Blackwell said there’s a sense of urgency due to safety concerns at the Long Street facility.
School board member L.A. Overcash said a large sum of money, about $400,000, has already been spent on the project.
Brian Miller said the time is right.
“We’ll never find the same combination of low cost per square foot and low financing cost,” he said.
City Councilman William “Pete” Kennedy said financing is available, alluding to the possibility of inter-local financing.
Wagner said the taxpayers are the real stakeholders.
Hughes said the comments during the exercise weren’t reality, but subjection.
Wagner brought up the fact that additional contamination was found at the site, but Paris assured him it would be cleaned up within two or three months.
“It will take longer to get three votes from the commission than it will to clean the site,” Brian Miller said.
Next Richard Miller asked the group to share their “desired reality” for the project.
“Demonstrate to our taxpayers that our collective leadership will do the right thing,” Barber said.
Cox went back to a point she’s stuck by since being elected in November.
“I think we need to do it as quickly as possible,” she said. “Again, we have many important issues that we need to deal with, we need to move on.”
Woodson pointed out bringing the office to downtown Salisbury would provide a boost to local business where employees could shop and eat lunch.
“It’s a very desirable location,” he said.
Blackwell backed him up, asking all boards to consider the big picture and the impact such a project could have on the community.
Pierce said he’s already heard all the reasons the facility should be constructed downtown.
“We don’t need to go through this again, we’ve listened to all the speeches about why it needs to go downtown,” he said. “It all comes down to the where and when.”
Pierce said the school board decides the where and commissioners are in control of the when.
Overcash pointed out the school board has already decided on the downtown location.
“It doesn’t matter to me where you want it,” he said. “The question is do taxpayers want to fund this issue today.
Richard Miller said the issue is not being decided through a referendum.
“The referendum was the election,” said Pierce.
Brian Miller said inflation will make construction costs higher down the road.
“The thing that’s so amazing to me is that the very folks in this process who are fiscally sensitive to the spending of this money will have it cost more money in the future instead of moving forward today,” he said. “That makes absolutely no sense to me.
“In 80 years of looking at interest rates, there has never been a time that interest rates are lower than they are today … in the spirt of trying to be penny wise, we’re being pound foolish.
Wagner said he understands construction and finance costs are low, but the downtown office is not the only choice.
“We discuss this as though there have been no other options in 20-plus years,” he said. “That is just not the case, so to act as though if you’re opposing this project you’re simply allowing a dime to hold up a dollar, that’s not true.”
Wagner said he feels the administrative offices could be consolidated for less.
“I don’t care what the financing costs are, what the construction costs are, the point is $10 is less than $100 no matter how you finance it.”
The school board plans to hold additional meetings with the city and county boards in the future.
The city is expected to present a proposal for the inter-local financing agreement during the school board’s Jan. 28 meeting.