Josh Bergeron: Commissioners face three, large financial choices for county’s future

Published 12:10 am Sunday, May 3, 2015

The current crop of Rowan County commissioners undoubtedly has some distinct and important financial decisions to make for the 2016 budget year and beyond.

Since the election, commissioners have received results of two studies on long-range projects — county water and sewer and space needs for county departments. The school system also needs millions of dollars for capital needs.

A water and sewer system was estimated in a draft of the study to cost about $60 million. Commissioners and County Manager Aaron Church, however, said results of the draft study weren’t what they expected. One problem with the outline of the water and sewer system, according to county officials, was that it delved too deeply into the residential sewer business. The lines snake through residential areas, and the original intent was to build lines for economic development. Several lots containing hundreds of acres collectively stand to benefit from being connected to a water system.

Filling county departments space needs is undoubtedly another project on county commissions’ list of items to be accomplished. The undetermined issue is how to fill those needs. The county’s master plan included two main options, with several smaller ideas built in. With the West End Plaza, formerly the Salisbury Mall, the cost to fill the county’s space needs was about $27.5 million. Without the former mall, the cost would be greater than $40 million.

Commissioners will have to decide how and when to move county departments. The final plan could include options from any of the architects presented proposals. Commissioners could also choose options associated with neither. Regardless, moving county departments is going to cost a significant sum of money.

The third and final financial matter is capital needs for the school system. The total monetary amount of capital needs was said to be $118.33 million during a joint meeting this week between county commissioners and school board members, dwarfing the two previous projects. The amount cited included an amount agreed upon during 2014 mediation between commissioners and school board members.

Some discussion during the meeting focused on the fact that repairs to schools had been pushed back for years.

“It doesn’t matter how we got here, we’re here now,” said Assistant Superintendent of Operations Anthony Vann.

There was cracked asphalt in parking lots, aging schools that needed to be replaced, new roofs and a myriad of other needs.

To be clear, the amount requested by the school system rivals the county’s average annual expenditures over the past three years. Since 2012, Rowan County government has averaged between $120 million and $130 million in expenditures per year.

The school system didn’t request the money be allocated in a single year. Instead, it would be broken up into several million dollars each year.

All three of the projects combined would be $205.83 million at the low end. At the high end, the amount would be about $220 million. That’s in addition to the regularly budgeted amount given to the school system.

It’s unclear how all three financial projects being approved would affect the county’s budget long-term. Church has held closed-to-the-public budget workshops with county departments and says a draft of his budget will be ready in June. Options to pay for all three include: raising taxes, taking out a loan to cover all three or simply paying as the county’s budget allows.

A decision on which of the three most expensive projects will be funded is likely coming in June, as the next fiscal year begins on July 1.

Josh Bergeron is a news reporter for the Salisbury Post.