Editorial: County commissioners should talk about debt

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Rowan County commissioners may soon face questions none of them expected just three to four weeks ago.

Will they be able to take on debt for capital improvements they’ve been talking about for months or years?

Will county government need to delay its promise to provide the school system with $60 million in the next fiscal year for school construction? What about the planned agricultural center at West End Plaza, which has a cost estimate that’s hovered around $15 million? How about the $45 million bond referendum for Rowan-Cabarrus Community College that passed less than a month ago?

All of those questions rely on how long the county’s and state’s partial shutdown lasts. If things return to normal before summer, the answer may remain that the county has capacity to take on new debt without raising property taxes by more than previously projected.

But a prolonged shutdown means more businesses closing and less tax revenue coming in. That, in turn, means less money for the county to provide existing services. A prolonged, partial economic shutdown could change the answers to debt-related questions.

The best option for Rowan County commissioners is to encourage folks to follow the intent of the governor’s order and stay in or around their home unless doing essential business.

Like everyone else in the nation, commissioners also must hope for the best and plan for the worst. Even in a prolonged, partial shutdown, there may be an opportunity to move ahead with part or all of the three projects.

If there was value in providing tens of millions to replace and/or repair old schools before our crashing economy took its dive, there will still be value once students return to class. There also will still be a need for the many advanced technology programs Rowan-Cabarrus Community College plans to improve or expand with its bond referendum.

County commissioners may agree collectively that the best option is to wait and see what happens, but they should start talking now about their options. And the public must hear what they have to say. The end of the current fiscal year is only three months away.

Commissioners should also bend the ear of state legislators from Rowan and encourage them to make use of the state’s healthy reserves. The N.C. General Assembly must provide a relief package to the state’s residents of similar intent to what Congress has approved and President Donald Trump has signed. Its size will not be as large, but state officials can certainly shed their partisan differences to provide financial help for workers and struggling businesses (a select few are still doing OK).

Suspending our economy in its current state may be the best chance for North Carolina to keep a quick economic recovery in its sights after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.