Feeling spaced out and cramped in the county

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 16, 2014

As I squeezed past a chair, then backed and angled into a corner of the Rowan County Veteran Services Office on Thursday morning to snap a picture, I felt a little claustrophobic.
It wasn’t especially crowded in the office that day, just business as usual as Veteran Services officers Elaine Howle and Rick Johnson each sat down with a client. Also routine was Johnson taking his client, U.S. Army veteran Brandy McGuire, out of the office and down the hall to find a place that afforded some privacy while giving Howle and her client some time alone to continue their work. It’s essential, Johnson said, because some things have to be discussed privately and some things clients just want to.
Rowan County commissioners will consider bids Monday to renovate about 1,600 feet at the former Salisbury Mall for a new Veteran Services Office. But this is not a column about the mall, which commissioners bought for $3.45 million in December, renamed West End Plaza and set about planning to renovate so the county could relocate some of its departments there. There’s been a lot of ink spilled about that already, and there will be a lot more. So whether you’re among those who believe the commissioners made a good decision or those who believe they continue to throw good money after bad at the corner of Jake Alexander and Statesville boulevards, you’ll not find an opinion on that issue here.
This is about the fact that, whether it’s at the mall or somewhere else, county employees need adequate space to do their jobs, and the residents of Rowan County deserve for the departments to have enough space so those jobs can be done well.
It’s not just Veteran Services. At a public hearing earlier this month, Rowan County Board of Elections member Elaine Hewitt said a 2007 State Board of Elections general counsel inspection of the current elections office space found that it does not meet state security guidelines for election equipment and files and doesn’t have adequate parking for voting days or even routine business hours. That area flooded in 2008, not for the first time, she said. She showed pictures of the elections office stuffed with equipment and plastic bins.
Commissioners Chairman Jim Sides said the Board of Elections has been asking for space for two decades. Even Commissioner Jon Barber, who has consistently opposed the county’s purchase of the mall, voted in favor of paying to renovate part of it to house an expanded elections office because, he said, he promised several years ago he would help the department’s employees find a place suitable and adequate for them to do their jobs.
The county’s Department of Social Services and Health Department are also pressed for the room they need in helping some of the county’s neediest and most vulnerable residents, commissioners say, a problem accelerated and worsened by the same recession that forced county leaders to put off funding some of the needs identified in the last capital improvement plan. The county is currently working on a new plan, they say.
Meanwhile, Johnson and Howle, the Veteran Services officers, are tucked into tight quarters at Rufty-Holmes Senior Center. And Johnson is leading veterans down the hall looking for any available space with a little privacy. No matter what you think of the county buying the mall, these men and women who’ve served their country deserve better, somewhere.
Scott Jenkins is news editor at the Salisbury Post.