City officials say law involving county officials taking ownership no hurdle
SALISBURY — City and school system leaders agreed Friday to move forward with a new downtown central office and said a proposed state law that would give Rowan County commissioners authority to take ownership of all school buildings will not affect the project.
The city has the legal authority to borrow money on behalf of the Rowan-Salisbury School System, according to Assistant City Manager John Sofley, who said he consulted with two attorneys.
The school system would lease the building and pay back the city’s loan with state sales tax revenue.
The N.C. Local Government Commission must give the city its blessing before Salisbury borrows money to construct the proposed $8 million facility in the 300 block of South Main Street.
The city took over the project after Rowan County commissioners backed out, citing environmental contamination at the site, a former service station. After the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources cleared the site for development, commissioners said they had washed their hands of the project.
While a nod from the county would make it easier for the Local Government Commission to approve the city-schools partnership, it’s not necessary, Sofley said.
The group at Friday’s meeting, which included Mayor Paul Woodson, Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom and school board Chairman Dr. Richard Miller, agreed it would be a waste of time to seek approval from commissioners.
“As long as we operate within our statutory authority, they cannot stop us,” City Manager Doug Paris said.
“They can give us a very hard time,” Sofley added.
Miller asked how a bill that would give nine counties the authority to take ownership of school buildings would affect the central office. The bill originally applied to all 100 counties, but a new local version applies to just nine counties, including Rowan.
Iredell County commissioners recently pulled out of the bill, Miller said.
None of the school systems want the bill, Miller said, “but nobody is listening.”
If it passes, the new law would not enable Rowan County to take over the central office that Salisbury built, according to Woodson, who said he consulted City Attorney Rivers Lawther.
“The city of Salisbury would own that building,” he said. “The county could not come in and grab it.”
Paris called the bill “a huge strategic mistake” by Rowan County. While commissioners have complained about trying to shed old, high-maintenance buildings, they would take on more of the same if the bill passes, Paris said.
According to the legislation, counties could take over ownership of school property but leave the school board in charge of equipment, maintenance and repair.
“We have a state legislature that’s doing quite a bit to dismantle public education, which is a core tenet and core support of who we are as a democracy,” Miller said.
He said considering the direction of the General Assembly, he feels an urgency to move forward with the central office and “get a shovel in the ground.”
Paris said he would be shocked if any member of Rowan County’s local delegation opposed the project, considering the redevelopment it promises for downtown Salisbury. Between the central office and future neighbor Integro Technologies, which is building a $3.2 million headquarters on the same block, the projects will bring up to 190 jobs to downtown, Paris said.
“This is huge for our downtown and huge for our community,” he said.
Paris said at least three commissioners — a majority — plan to cut the schools’ budget request “regardless of any need, and their strategy is to blame it on the state.”
Woodson lamented that Rowan County has authority over school property inside the city limits, the result of a controversial merger in 1989.
“We’re going to step forward because it’s the right thing to do,” Woodson said. With a new central office downtown and new retail development on the interstate, perceptions of Rowan County will change, he said.
Miller said there is a perception that Rowan County is “backward,” and businesses like the hospital are having a hard time convincing professionals to live here.
“They will work here, but they won’t live here,” he said.
Paris said the recent Rowan County Defense of Religion Act, a resolution pulled last month from a state house committee after it drew national criticism, did “decades’ worth of harm in Raleigh and nationwide” to Rowan County.
Sofley said the city has the rare opportunity to redevelop an entire downtown block. Integro bought the property for its new headquarters from the city for $250,000, and the city owns the land for the central office.
Miller said a new central office is crucial to support the 35 schools in the Rowan-Salisbury system. School administrators are currently located in five buildings.
Gene Miller, assistant superintendent of operations, said the computer server room at the Long Street location has gotten so bad, he has to have maintenance workers come in today, Sunday and early Monday morning to make sure computers are up and running for online testing that starts Monday.
Grissom said she is eager to sign an agreement with the city after spending the week dealing with Internet and computer problems due to the server room, which would cost millions of dollars to fix.
“We are facing online testing on Monday, and I’m not sure we can pull it off,” she said.
City leaders said they would prefer if school officials donate the Long Street facility to the town of East Spencer after the new central office opens. School officials said they will consider it.
Paris said his staff will draw up an agreement with the school system that includes the lease agreement. Miller said he will inform the school board Monday.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.