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Editorial: Make more substantial progress on bond referendum

Salisbury Fire Chief Bob Parnell described it as “groundbreaking and lifesaving.” County Commissioners Vice Chairman Jim Greene called it one of the most important votes he’d taken in his time in office. There’s was no need for Rowan County to “stay poor” when opportunity was just a “yes” vote away, said Rowan-Cabarrus Community College President Carol Spalding.

All three community leaders were speaking before a $45 million bond referendum’s placement on a March 3, 2020, ballot. The bond would create an advanced technology education complex, a building for Rowan County Early College and a fire decontamination facility. Naturally, Parnell was advocating for the better fire training facility. Greene spoke before he voted to put the referendum on the ballot. Spalding was boosting the referendum to the Salisbury Rotary Club.

Just before the pandemic changed our way of life for good, Rowan County voters said “yes” to the bond referendum, with 57.33% in favor. Uncertainty about how the pandemic would affect the county’s finances, however, produced a pause in moving forward with the project in the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30.

Now, county officials are talking about slow-walking progress on the project next fiscal year, with Manager Aaron Church suggesting during a budget workshop last week the county only allocate costs for an architect. He likened the bond referendum to a massive budget request —a 1,740.1% increase over the previous year — by the institution instead of what it was: an economic development project that will improve the quality and abilities of public education in the county.

Have we already forgotten about the long list of testimonials and thousands of people who voted for the proposal?

Church suggested starting with $1 million in county funds and millions in American Rescue Plan instead of moving forward with selling bonds and taking on debt.

His proposal is fair, but it would be better to focus on the capital needs faced by Rowan-Salisbury Schools if the American Rescue Plan funding can be used for school construction. The RSS Board of Education will hear about possibilities for tens of millions of dollars in federal funding this week, but it doesn’t have the money yet. What’s more, the mountain of capital needs has remained so large in Rowan-Salisbury Schools that even that much wouldn’t catch them up.

In a county where sentiments against new taxes are usually strong, voters in March 2020 approved the referendum by a relatively convincing margin, 57%-43%, with county officials acknowledging a 3-cent property tax increase could be needed.

If a bond referendum that required a tax increase was needed then, when the local economy was still booming, why is it any less urgent now when many sectors and people are still struggling? A tax increase will affect property owners’ pocketbooks, but it will also provide good job training opportunities for people who aren’t comfortable going back to work for a minimum wage job. Waiting another year will only put the county further behind communities who have invested in their future.

Waiting until some undermined point to move forward with selling bonds and taking on debt is a bet that things will be better in the future. And local government shouldn’t be in the betting business. It should obey the will of the people.

To be clear, county government’s finances have mostly been unaffected by the pandemic. In April, county commissioners received a financial report showing total revenue about $9 million greater than the prior year. Property tax revenue is about $1 million more than the prior year. Sales tax revenue is also up. Rowan County government is doing just fine financially.

So, how should the county act on Church’s proposal to allocate some initial money toward architect fees and use American Rescue Plan funds as needed?

It may be OK for the immediate future, but he and county commissioners shouldn’t make college officials wait for months if they’re ready to get started on construction before the end of the upcoming fiscal year — June 30, 2022.

It’s probably also better to look for other ways to put American Rescue Plan funding to use and wait until the check is deposited in the county’s coffers to finalize plans.

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