Vets, jets, pets: Commissioners discuss projects, priorities during planning work session

Published 12:05 am Thursday, January 20, 2022

SALISBURY — During an action-packed planning work session on Tuesday afternoon, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners reviewed accomplishments and strategized for the future.

The annual event, not held last year due to the pandemic, was facilitated by Julie Brenman, a government consultant and adjunct professor with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Government. The session helps the board align its goals in anticipation of crafting a budget for the next fiscal year. Brenman used a vision board and post-it notes to help commissioners visualize their goals.

To start, Brenman asked commissioners to reflect on the previous year. Highlights mentioned by commissioners included economic development wins, expansion underway at the Mid-Carolina Regional airport and improved relationships between the county government and Rowan’s 10 municipalities. Others listed were NorthPoint announcing the construction of a large speculative building, the county’s employees continuing to work during the COVID-19 pandemic and bringing the Environmental Health division up to full-staff.

Once commissioners were finished ruminating on the past, they turned their attention to the future and received a financial report from County Manager Aaron Church.

Financial outlook

The board will not pass a budget for fiscal year 2022-23 until June, but Church provided commissioners with a look at the county’s current finances and a preview of what the budget might contain.

Church said the county’s current fund balance is a “very healthy” $73.6 million. The available balance is $44.9 million and unassigned balance is $28.7 million. Church said the county’s net income last year was $18 million, largely due to the influx in COVID-19 funding and a reduction in spending as the county prepared to weather the pandemic.

Church delivered a positive report on the county’s sales tax revenue. The county was projected to receive $29.7 million in sales tax revenue this fiscal year, but new estimates indicate the total will likely be about $34 million.

Despite describing a rosy picture of the county’s current finances, Church also warned commissioners of inflation. Inflation rose about 7% in 2021 and is at its highest rate since 1982. As a result, Church said the next fiscal year budget would likely recommend a cost of living increase for county employees between 6-15%, which would add $3.5 to $7 million to the budget. Last year’s cost of living increased by 2%. Church also said he expects the budget to account for a minimum 15% increase in goods and services, which would result in a $10 million increase to the budget.

Church broached the subject of the $45 million bond referendum that was passed by voters in early 2020 to provide Rowan-Cabarrus Community College with funding to expand several programs and build a complex of new buildings. The bond has been postponed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Church said the county could borrow the money in the next fiscal year and pay a debt service of $3.9 million per year. Commissioner Craig Pierce said he wasn’t sure if the $45 million would be enough anymore now that material costs have increased. He also said the college’s operations may have changed in response to the pandemic. Chair Greg Edds said he would bring up the topic to leaders from RCCC the next time he and Vice Chair Jim Greene met with them.

Church also mentioned the upcoming revaluation. Each county in North Carolina must conduct a reappraisal of all real property (land, buildings, and other improvements to land) at least once every eight years by North Carolina statute. Rowan County last conducted a tax revaluation in 2019 and will complete another in early 2023. If the value of land in the county increases as expected, the revaluation could lead to an increased property tax base.

Project updates

Airport and Transit Director Valerie Steele provided an update on the status of expansion at the Mid-Carolina Regional Airport. The airport is adding five hangars: a 15,000-square-foot corporate hangar with an office; a 15,000-square-foot public safety hangar with an office and sleeping quarters; and three box hangars.

Steele said the Mid-Carolina Regional Airport received $5 million from the state that could be used to help with the hangar expansion. The North Carolina Department of Transportation will determine exactly how that funding is disbursed and used at the airport.

The hangar expansion project is currently in its design phase. Steele said she estimates being able to bid the project for construction in about 10 months. The goal is to have the hangar expansion complete within two years.

Along with the hangar expansion, Steele said one of her priorities moving forward is to get the airport’s parallel taxiway expansion project on the NCDOT’s state improvement plan in the next few years.

Steele also provided commissioners with a “happy and easy” update on Rowan Transit. Steele said Rowan Transit has been able to eliminate the wait list for patients requesting a ride to their dialysis appointments. That was made possible, Steele said, by the board’s decision to follow her recommendation and discontinue Rowan Express, which provided people with low-cost transportation from Kannapolis to Salisbury with stops in between. Steele said the money saved by stopping Rowan Express allowed Rowan Transit to bolster its on-demand door-to-door ride services to provide patients with life-sustaining transportation.

“Thank you for your decision to remove Rowan Express and help these people with their dialysis,” Steele said. “There were tears on the phone making phone calls to let people know.”

Following Steele, Robert Lauer of ADW Architects provided the board with a progress update on plans to transform part of West End Plaza into an agricultural and event center. Lauer said his firm is working through the planning process for the center and should have a good feel for how much the project may cost by the end of May.

Lauer said he expects to be able to advertise the project to contractors in July and that construction would likely start in September. While the project would then be in the hands of the selected contracting company, Lauer said he believes the project would take 12 months to complete once work is started.

ADW Architects is also in the midst of conducting a space needs study for the Health Department. The study will help the county determine the best way to meet the growing department’s need for more room. The county is targeting West End Plaza as a potential new home for the department. Lauer said the study is going “very well,” although it was delayed slightly due to the holidays and a few members of the firm contracting COVID-19.

Future priorities 

At the end of the session, commissioners tacked a list of far-ranging priorities to the middle of the vision board.

Pierce summarized his priorities in three short words: “vets, jets and pets.” Pierce is working with former Salisbury City Council member Kenneth Hardin to open a veterans social center at West End Plaza. He’s also keen on supporting the expansion of Mid-Carolina Regional Airport. Pierce, a longtime advocate for the Rowan County Animal Shelter, said he is intent on guiding the county’s new dog adoption center to fruition.

Commissioner Judy Klusman listed the crisis center among the priorities. A planning committee asked the Board of Commissioners during the session for $15 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to either build or purchase a facility that would serve people dealing with substance use disorder or mental illness. Klusman is also a member of the planning committee.

Commissioner Mike Caskey said he’d like the county to focus on bolstering benefits it offers to employees. With more economic and residential development incoming, Caskey said the county may need to bring on more employees to manage a growing population. He mentioned offering employees a free membership to the YMCA as a small way to do that. He also mentioned offering a stipend to veterans who work for the county.

Greene pointed to the completion of renovations at West End Plaza as one of his targets in the next year. Greene also said he’d like to see movement on the bond issue for Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. Another area where Greene would like to see progress is with the Board of Commissioners’ relationship with the Rowan-Salisbury School System Board of Education. Greene mentioned reinstating a joint capital-improvement committee with representatives from both boards meeting regularly.

Edds said supporting municipalities will remain one his top goals, especially as many towns in the county are in position to land economic development opportunities. Edds also said he’d like to engage Davidson County and Eagle Creek Renewable Energy about the future of High Rock Lake. High Rock Lake is the second largest in North Carolina and is a major economic driver for Rowan County. It is managed by Eagle Creek, formerly Cube Hydro.

About Ben Stansell

Ben Stansell covers business, county government and more for the Salisbury Post. He joined the staff in August 2020 after graduating from the University of Alabama. Email him at ben.stansell@salisburypost.com.

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