City Council to consider borrowing $8M for school office

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 6, 2013

SALISBURY — The proposed downtown school central office came back to life Tuesday when Salisbury City Council agreed to consider borrowing $8 million on the school system’s behalf, one day after Rowan County commissioners killed the project.

City Council voted unanimously to have City Manager Doug Paris meet with Rowan-Salisbury Schools officials to look at funding options for the central office and report his findings.

Commissioners voted 3-2 on Monday against fulfilling a pledge to borrow $6 million for the school system with no strings attached. Jon Barber and Chad Mitchell voted to borrow the funds, while other commissioners cited contamination at the downtown site as reason to pull the plug.

By state law, the school system can’t borrow money. Whether Rowan County or Salisbury borrowed the funds, the school system would pay back the loan using state sales tax revenue earmarked for capital outlay.

The school board wants to build the central office in the 300 block of South Main Street, where the city has agreed to donate $500,000 worth of land and parking. The school system has invested about $400,000 in plans for the building.

It will cost $8 million, not $6 million, to construct a building large enough to hold the entire school administration. The city had been willing to consider borrowing the extra $2 million if commissioners borrowed $6 million.

Tuesday, Paris said city staff have been brainstorming back-up plans that would allow the project to move forward, in anticipation of county commissioners voting no.

He asked City Council for “permission to explore” a partnership between the city and school system. After the meeting, Paris said if the deal comes together, the city would own the central office building until the school system could purchase it after two or three years.

Some county commissioners expressed concern Monday about taking ownership of the site because of massive soil contamination from an old service station. The city is in the process of cleaning up the contamination, a $500,000 project overseen by the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources and paid for largely by the state.

Councilman Brian Miller sounded a reminder at Tuesday’s meeting: The city would only facilitate the loan as a pass-through transaction. County commissioners have said they don’t want that role, “and that’s their prerogative,” Miller said.

“I would love for us to see if we can overcome that obstacle and still make something positive happen for our community,” he said.

Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell made the motion to authorize Paris to meet with school officials, and council members Karen Alexander and William “Pete” Kennedy also offered support.

Kennedy said the motion should specifically mention $8 million.

“I support it wholeheartedly,” he said.

Mayor Paul Woodson said he sees “great potential” in the project, which has stirred private development interest in the south end of Main Street.

The school board chairman attended the council meeting and said he felt hopeful after the vote.

“It’s certainly time to complete this project and move on to running the school system,” Dr. Richard Miller said. “The board is open to anything that will help us complete this project.”

Miller said he’s not concerned about the contamination, which he said is part of doing business and will be resolved.

“Cleaning up polluted sites is a normal and routine function,” Miller said.

Waiting for crews to complete the cleanup is not a problem for the school system, he said.

“After 23 years, what’s two more months,” he said.

Miller said Rowan-Salisbury Schools also will not be in a hurry to occupy two vacant county buildings the commissioners offered rent-free as temporary office space for staff at the dilapidated Long Street building, one of several offices for school administration personnel.

Upfitting the former Department of Social Services buildings for school administration would “easily cost between $1.5 million and $2 million,” Miller said. Commissioners offered the school system a $250,000 loan to cover move-in costs.

Neither building is as big as the 29,000-square-foot Long Street headquarters.

The West Innes Street building needs a new heating and cooling system, which would cost $500,000, as well as plumbing and wiring repairs, Miller said. Establishing the platform for the school system’s technology hub at either the West Innes location or the Mahaley Avenue building would cost $500,000 to $1 million, he said.

Miller said ironically, county commissioners had visited the same buildings previously in the search for a new central office and determined they were not suitable.

The school system would have to spend up to $15,000 on engineers and architects to assess the needs of the former DSS buildings, he said.

“Do we want to spend money on vetting two properties that further decentralize our administration?” he said. “This is not sound fiscal policy.”

Miller said he agrees the county should not take ownership of contaminated land and would not receive the state’s blessing to borrow $6 million unless the cleanup was complete.

“But (commissioners) could have done it contingent upon getting a clean bill of health,” he said.

Miller said he sees two ways for the project to move forward downtown — the city borrows the money, or the school system goes back to commissioners when the contamination has been resolved.

“Then we’ll see if contamination was really the issue,” he said.

  Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.