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Editorial: Double-down on public input with new spending

Rowan County commissioners seem to be taking a more aggressive approach to debt spending lately, making promises or giving tentative approvals to what could amount to $135 million, including a bond referendum.

As they move closer to finalizing that spending, commissioners must move slowly and ensure they hear taxpayers’ opinions, too.

The $135 million amount comes, in part, from $75 million over two years in new capital spending for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, which was included in Rowan County Manager Aaron Church’s budget proposal this summer. And the school board has kept that figure in mind as they work to address the system’s massive capital needs.

The second piece of that $135 million comes from proposed offices and events space at West End Plaza. Moving into West End Plaza at a yet-to-be-determined date would be Rowan County Cooperative Extension, the soil and water district and forestry service. There’s been no final cost estimate for construction, but commissioners have asked an architect to draw up plans that would provide that. Commissioners are operating with the understanding that the county has the capacity for $15 million in new debt.

Meanwhile, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College has asked commissioners to support a $45 million bond referendum to build a 105,000-square-foot technology education complex in Salisbury. And while Vice Chairman Jim Greene told the Post this week commissioners haven’t endorsed the proposal yet, they passed a resolution Monday saying county government “has decided to pursue the issuance of general obligation bonds in the maximum aggregate principal amount of $45 million.” They passed another resolution Monday, too, in which the language differed slightly, saying the county had “tentatively decided to pursue” the bonds.

Importantly, voters would still need to approve a referendum, which could be on the March 2020 ballot. Voters, not commissioners, would be the ones responsible for giving final approval to a bond referendum. If they do, county staff says a 3-cent property tax increase would be needed. But commissioners would have a role in advocating for and working through the logistics of getting the measure on the ballot.

To be clear, all three are worthwhile projects. Debt to improve capital needs in Rowan-Salisbury Schools, for example, will help replace aging schools with new ones. And there’s no shortage of aging schools from which to choose from in the RSS system.

The best argument to date for the bond referendum and the accompanying facility may have come from Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds, who said during an Oct. 21 meeting that community leaders can’t ask employers to change what they’re looking for. Instead, the community needs to change what it’s providing, he said.

“It’s time not to be thinking about big steps. It is time for us to begin thinking about taking big leaps,” Edds said.

But as commissioners work through final approval on all three items, they should move slowly and double-down on any required public input. Taking a more aggressive approach to spending isn’t bad when its needed, but public buy-in is critical.

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