Board to discuss options for school central office
By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — County commissioners will consider all available options for a Rowan-Salisbury Schools central office at a special meeting later this month.
Instead of making a decision on the Board of Education’s new proposal, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners agreed Tuesday to continue discussions on Jan. 25 at 3 p.m.
The board set the meeting after hearing a presentation by Gene Miller, superintendent of operations at Rowan-Salisbury Schools, and comments by 20 members of the public.
Under the school board’s proposal, a 62,000-square-foot, three-story building would be constructed for a consolidated school office in the 300 block of Main Street.
The city of Salisbury agreed Dec. 20 to give the school system a $200,000 parcel there. It also would provide a parking lot to hold 160 vehicles.
“We think that this will work,” Miller said. “The money is there. There is a way. You told us to come up with a plan that didn’t cost the taxpayers money and didn’t take a tax increase… and we did.”
The school system wants to enter a lease-purchase agreement with private developer Bryan Barwick of Barwick & Associates in Charlotte. The developer would construct the building and then lease it to the system, and no up-front payments would be required.
The land donation and an anticipated $1.5 million in New Market Tax Credits brings the estimated $8.9 million cost down to $7.15 million.
The school system would fund its lease payments in three ways, Miller said. Beginning in the last half of fiscal year 2014, it would move into the new building and save operational costs through consolidation.
He said the schools also would have additional money available each year from reductions in its 1993 bond payments. The rest would be paid for with capital savings until fiscal year 2016-17.
At that point, he said, the school system will begin to pay down the lease with $1 million per year of the $2.2 million available from its public school building capital fund. That money comes from sales taxes put into place in 1983 and 1986 that are dedicated to school construction.
“This is not taking any money from the budget for teachers or teacher assistants,” he said.
The system also could save an estimated $278,685 by selling one or both administration buildings at Long Street and Ellis Street, Miller said, which are in disrepair.
It would cost millions of dollars to restore and stabilize the five current administration buildings, he said.
Miller said the city and county also both will receive about $135,000 in property tax revenue for several years while the developer owns the property.
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Commissioner Raymond Coltrain asked Finance Director Leslie Heidrick if the county could borrow money at an interest rate lower than 3 percent. Heidrick said it probably could, depending on the market.
When the county closed on a loan for its communication project in December, it received a 2.38 percent interest rate on $9.7 million to be repaid over 10 years.
Commissioner Jon Barber asked whose responsibility it is to determine the location of school office buildings. Miller replied that state law puts the school board in charge of that.
But Commissioner Jim Sides said he would not vote for the school system’s proposal at this time, adding that financing it through the county would be a better option.
He said the $1.5 million tax credit would still come out of taxpayers’ pockets – it just wouldn’t go to the county.
Sides suggested commissioners sit down for a work session, discuss all of the options available and decide how to move forward.
“It’s time for the Board of Commissioners to approve a central office operation, whether that be a new building, an existing building, or any combination of the above,” he said. “I think 23 years is long enough to be arguing back and forth.”
Chairman Chad Mitchell agreed, saying he wants to find out more about the possibility of renovating and adding onto the system’s Ellis Street office building.
He also asked to see a plan for possibly constructing a new building next to Isenberg Elementary School on Jake Alexander Boulevard North.
Miller said the school sits on 20 acres there, and the system owns another 20-acre lot between the school and Crescent Country Club.
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Many members of the public who spoke for the proposal were downtown Salisbury residents and business owners who said it would revitalize the city center.
“As county commissioners, you should be pro-business by placing this office downtown, where it will create additional business growth,” said Salisbury resident Michael Young.
Pam Coffield, owner of Stichin’ Post Gifts, said many of her repeat customers are people who work in school administration. She said they tell her they want to work downtown so they can shop there more often and have lunch at local restaurants.
Some blamed opposition to a downtown office on bad blood between the county and city.
“There have been innuendoes that about 20 percent of county citizens – that’s the people in the city of Salisbury – were not in good standing with some members of the commission,” said Sonny Allen.
But others who oppose the proposal said the deal isn’t as good as it looks, and the school system has better options available.
Rowan County resident Larry Wright called a lease purchase agreement “the most expensive way to ownership.”
Another speaker asked why the school system doesn’t use the former Department of Social Services building and save its money for other needs.
Sides later said the newly renovated building could hold the system’s Long Street employees and more, but the school board has turned it down.
Sides and Vice Chairman Carl Ford recently met with Bill Godair, pastor of Cornerstone Church, about the possibility of using the church’s property as a central office location.
Sides said it was not an official visit on behalf of the board or county residents.
“I made no offer to purchase his property or to help him sell it,” Sides said. “I simply asked him, ‘Is this still an option? Is this property still for sale, and if it is, what is the concrete price?’
Ford said the Cornerstone Church property is one of eight options he’s been looking at for the school administrative offices. Six of them are in Salisbury, he said.
Ford said economic development and job creation will shift to wherever the offices are located in Rowan County.
“It was said that a downtown location would keep property taxes and sales taxes local, and that’s true,” he said. “But how can that not be true if it were in Spencer, China Grove, Cleveland or anywhere else in Rowan County?”
Ford also said he has nothing against the city of Salisbury, its leadership or its residents. He and Sides both said they want to make the right choice for the whole county.
In other business
Rowan County Commissioners also:
• Set a public hearing for Jan. 17 regarding the draft East Rowan Land Use Study created by the county planning board and staff.
• Approved the initiation of a $250,000 to $350,000 renovation plan for the Rowan County Smile Center Facility and application for grant funds to support it.
County Health Director Leonard Wood said up to $100,000 may be available from local philanthropic organizations. Commissioners also authorized the health department to use up to $100,000 in Medicaid Escrow funds for the project.
• Approved an application for the fiscal year 2013 Community Transportation Program, which is the principal source of funding for Rowan Transit System operations.
The county is requesting a $181,397 administration grant requiring a 15 percent county match, and an $87,048 capital equipment grant requiring a 10 percent county match.
• Approved a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) application.
• Removed an agenda item to discuss replacement of the tax administrator’s position in July 2012.
Jerry Rowland, who currently holds the job, has said he plans to retire soon but hasn’t yet given the county a date.
• Accepted Community Services Block Grant documentation for an anti-poverty plan.
• Approved a revised crime insurance policy for Rowan County officials.
• Approved several board appointments.
• Proclaimed Jan. 16, 2012, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Rowan County.
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.
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