Commissioners delay central office vote

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 4, 2012

SALISBURY — In a split vote Monday, county commissioners voted to put a 60-day hold on the Rowan-Salisbury Schools central office proposal.
Vice Chairman Craig Pierce made the motion, and Commissioner Mike Caskey seconded it.
Chairman Jim Sides cast the deciding vote, and it passed 3-2, with Commissioners Jon Barber and Chad Mitchell in disagreement.
Pierce said the downtown location won’t be large enough to do what the school board said it was going to do — build a truly consolidated central office.
“I would like for this board and the new school board to meet together, and discuss in an open format what we want to have as an end result for the school office building,” Pierce said.
The school board asked the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to approve a $6 million loan for the construction of a $6.3 million building, which would be located in the 300 block of South Main Street in downtown Salisbury.
The other $334,000 would be paid out of the school board’s capital outlay fund. The school board says $100,000 of that will come back in sales tax refunds for its tax-exempt purchases.
“I would sit here tonight and vote for $6 million,” Sides said. “But I will not vote for you to take capital money and spend it on a central office.”
That money is budgeted for current needs at the schools and should be spent on them, Sides said.
Caskey said he was against this project as a school board member and he’s still against it as a commissioner.
“If it came up tonight to totally kill this project, I would have killed it,” Caskey said. “Sixty days will give us the chance to look at it a little bit more.”
Commissioner Chad Mitchell said he didn’t support the delay because there is already a 30-day wait while the county applies to the Local Government Commission for approval.
“This 60-day delay automatically equals 90 days,” Mitchell said. “If we have another public hearing, we’re at 100 days.”
He said both new boards should have the chance to approve or reject the project, but the new school board would get that chance while waiting on the Local Government Commission.
Mitchell also pointed out that the only reason commissioners are involved in this decision is because the county is borrowing the money on behalf of the school system.
He said the school board controls how their state sales tax money is spent, and it has to be used for building projects. If the board saved up the money instead of borrowing it, Mitchell said, it could build the office wherever it wants for however much it wants.
Commissioner Jon Barber suggested allowing staff to move forward with seeking financing for the project, and if the new school board signals that it wants to “pull the plug,” the county can do so then.
But Pierce said he did not want to amend his motion.
About 40 people spoke at a public hearing about the central office proposal on Monday.
Some were Salisbury businesspeople and residents who said locating the office downtown would give a much-needed boost to the local economy.
“I believe this good-quality addition will help us attract business in downtown Salisbury,” said Rick Jackson, a downtown business owner.
Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson and City Council Member Maggie Blackwell both spoke in favor of the proposed project, saying it would be beneficial for the city and county.
“The city has donated land for this,” Woodson said. “We want you in downtown. We need you in downtown.”
A few employees of the school system spoke about the need for a new central office, in light of the dilapidated condition of its largest current office on Long Street.
“With a central office location, the savings on electricity, water and sewer and natural gas would be substantial,” said employee Lauren Roberts.
Eight people spoke firmly against the office, including Carl Ford, who had just left his county commissioner’s seat earlier that day.
“This needs to be built somewhere where it can be truly consolidated,” Ford said.
The nearly 49,000-square-foot building would house all administrative staff except those in the exceptional children’s department. It would consolidate the school administration’s five office locations into two.
“Why on Earth would you continue supporting the creation of an expensive office building when it admittedly does not meet the current needs, much less the future needs of school administration?” asked Susan Agner.
One speaker gave an opinion in the middle of the two opposing sides.
David Aycoth, a past member and chairman of the school board, said the price to construct the proposed building seems like a good deal. He said he knows firsthand the need for a consolidated central office, but he isn’t sure that the current plan meets it.
He said the plan should be re-evaluated to try to add more square footage to allow for expansion.
Brian Miller, a Salisbury banker and City Council member, said the school board did get the chance to design a downtown building that would fully consolidate its administrative staff.
“Those folks then were asked to go back and redesign it based on the dollar amount that you were willing to spend,” Miller said. “Now that they’ve done so, the justification for turning down what they’ve done is because it doesn’t fit everybody in the building. I don’t find that logic appealing or reasonable.”
Jeff Morris, a Spencer alderman, brought a tin cup to the meeting to illustrate that he was giving his “two cents’ worth” against the proposal. He said the school board should be held to its promise of a $6 million office, “and not a penny more.”
He left the cup on the podium, inviting supporters of the office plan to use it to shill for money from the county government. Instead, a couple of speakers added their own spare change to show support for the project.
Randy Hemann, director of Downtown Salisbury, used the cup to talk about the money that has already been given or the project — $400,000 from the school board for design work, $240,000 pledged from the city for parking and $250,000 pledged from the Robertson Foundation for furniture.
“As conservatives, are you going to dump that out and start over?” Hemann asked.
A few people brought up the Salisbury Mall as an alternative site for the central office. Owner Igal Namdar has said he’d be willing to sell the 315,000-square-foot shopping center to the school system, for an undetermined price.
Belk, the shopping center’s largest anchor, plans to relocate next October to a new store at Julian Road. Many of the smaller stores have been sitting vacant.
Caskey said he would be willing to consider the mall if the school board wants to look at it. Pierce said last week that the county or school system could purchase the property and use part of it as a central office.
Barber laid out several arguments Monday against owning the mall. He said it would take money from the tax base, he said, by converting the mall from a taxable business property to a tax-exempt government building.
He also said a state statute called the Olmstead Act prevents local governments from competing directly with private business and industry.
Sides said he is not in favor of buying the whole mall, but he would be willing to consider buying the Belk building, which is large enough at 80,000 square feet to house the school administrative staff.

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.