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County agrees to wait on projects that require significant new debt

By Natalie Anderson
natalie.anderson@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Meeting for the first time using a video conferencing application on Monday, Rowan County commissioners talked about delaying capital projects that require debt due to the economic impact of COVID-19.

Such projects include the promise of $60 million in the next fiscal year for school construction within the Rowan-Salisbury Schools system, the $45 million bond referendum passed by county citizens on March 3 for Rowan-Cabarrus Community College as well as the estimated $15 million for construction at West End Plaza.

“The economy was an entirely different thing compared to when (these projects) passed to what it is now,” said Commissioner Craig Pierce, who noted he’s been contacted by locals who are concerned with taking on the debt amid the current economic circumstances.

While no official action or vote was taken regarding the funding for the projects, Pierce said the intent of the discussion was to give citizens “comfort” during this time and let them know that the debt is on the minds of the commissioners. In statements during the meeting, however, commissioners agreed with Pierce — it’s best to avoid taking on large amounts of debt for new capital projects until the economy recovers.

The $45 million bond would pay for an advanced technology education complex at RCCC. When it was first proposed, it was projected to result in a 3-cent property tax increase, resulting in a debt that will be paid over 15 years.

Commissioner Judy Klusman expressed concern that next year’s budget for the county will be in “dire straits.” But commissioners Vice Chairman Jim Greene said he didn’t anticipate that the county would be in a “long-term slump.”

Chairman Greg Edds said the county is still doing well financially and referred to an opinion column published Sunday in the Salisbury Post (“Rowan County will persevere, emerge stronger, better than before outbreak”).

In the column, Edds said, “I’m fully convinced that Rowan’s past challenges have taught us lessons that will help propel us toward a rapid, robust recovery. It’s true that we’ve never been through a challenge like this, but I sincerely believe that, as a community, we are in a much better position today than ever before.”

He added in the column that the “local economy is fundamentally strong.”

Commissioner Mike Caskey said “the brakes” should be put on the projects, and added that it may be a good time for the board to evaluate some of them. For example, any data gathered about county employees working from home may be able to serve as a guide for whether allowing employees to work from home can be practiced more often, which could have an effect on the office spaces proposed for construction at the West End Plaza.

Leslie Heidrick, assistant county manager and finance director, said the county is currently putting together two financing plans for the current fiscal year’s budget, which ends at the end of June.

One commitment from the county’s budget includes reimbursement for county vehicles — many of them already purchased — which amounts to debt of $1 million paid over three years.

Another commitment is $1 million for the Kannapolis City Schools system. The board granted Kannapolis City Schools $1.3 million last fiscal year to begin their project of a career and technical education building. This fiscal year’s amount would complete that project and provide funding for technology and other schools’ repairs.

Heidrick added that capital funding for school systems is based upon what each system’s needs are each year, which is noted in schools’ budgets when they’re submitted.

Both Pierce and Klusman said the commissioners should stick to their commitments for the current budget year and noted that the city of Kannapolis is experiencing “tremendous growth.”

“It’d only be prudent for us to live up to what we committed to,” Pierce said, adding that it’d be irresponsible for the county to not help them finish a project they’ve already started.

Another financial obligation includes $600,000 for a Dan Nicholas Park concession stand. Greene said the park has prepared for the submission of bids, but Heidrick said the county has yet to receive any. The plan is to borrow the money, she said, which only pays for a portion of the project.

Pierce said he’d like to see bids first before making a decision to move forward, as it will depend on the state of the economy at the time.

Overall, board members agreed that they were not in favor of pursuing long-term capital spending for county projects right now until they see how the local economy is impacted by COVID-19.

Contact reporter Natalie Anderson at 704-797-4246.

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