LAURINBURG — Members of the Scotland County Board of Commissioners are asking for more details before signing off on the school system’s $41.7 million consolidation plan.
The board met in a budget work session on Wednesday to review departments’ operational and capital requests for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.
In advance of a joint meeting next week with the school board, the commissioners also reviewed the $2.8 million in annual operational savings that the schools expect to incur with the fruition of its entire consolidation scheme. The schools have proposed that plan as a three-phase process between 2017 and 2020.
“What is the projected savings of taking the next step?,” asked Commissioner Guy McCook. “What if we never build a new school? What if we stop, and I’m not saying we will, but what if something happens and at the end of this next step we say okay we’re done — then what happens?”
The first phase of the proposal, the reassignment of Covington Street Elementary School to an expanded Sycamore Lane Elementary School, is scheduled to be effective for the 2017-2018 school year.
The proposal also includes closure of the South Scotland, I.E. Johnson, and North Laurinburg elementary schools. To serve the students displaced, the schools are also planning to construct a new elementary school and add a new wing to Laurel Hill Elementary.
“What we have heard from individual members is that this whole thing is actually one project,” said Commissioner Whit Gibson. “Doing it piecemeal disrupts their intentions.”
The commissioners also discussed realizing savings for the county when restricted funds it is currently spending on school bond payments come off the books in 2020. Those monies could be reallocated to paying for new construction.
“If we’re going to have restricted revenue we can only spend on schools, when we can allocate that money to the schools, some of the savings needs to be returned to the county,” said Gibson.
The school board has also discussed with multiple architecture firms the possibility of a public-private partnership in which the school system could have a new school built to its specifications and then lease it from the developer. Carol McCall, chair of the board of commissioners, feels those plans may be premature without the county’s input.
“They know how they want their school system to work, and that’s fine, that’s what they’re charged with doing and that’s their responsibility,” she said.
“They may want to finance it this way, with the public-private partnership, but if that’s not the best way for the county to finance it then we’re going to have to say … we get to choose how we finance it.”
In other business, the commissioners directed County Manager Kevin Patterson to obtain long-range figures related to the proposed Edwin Morgan Center acquisition, a joint project of the county and Richmond Community College.
According to Patterson, architectural estimates indicate a $1.5 million cost to remodel the building for county office space and RCC classrooms.
“For us to occupy the space, the renovation costs are nominal or less,” Patterson said, pointing out that cleaning, painting, new lighting, and removal of private bathrooms will sufficiently convert former patient rooms into county offices.
“Basically we’re looking in and taking that front reception area, to the left, and if you’re familiar with this building the large space in there is what they had as their cafeteria — we’d actually convert that just into a conference room.”
Of the $1.5 million total cost, $1.1 million is available for the project — in part due to funds from the state bond referendum and a Golden LEAF grant to RCC.
But the total price tag could exceed $2 million with the as-yet undetermined cost to purchase the building from Scotland Health Care System, parking, and furnishings factored in.
“I think it’s a great project — I’m not being negative,” said McCook. “All I’m saying is I need some more information before I’m ready to put my stamp of approval on it. I think it’s a good idea; I think we’re headed in the right direction, but let’s make sure we know what all of our projections are before we make the final decision.”
Patterson said that he expects to present a preliminary budget proposal to the commissioners on May 24 with options reducing the property tax rate to $1.02 and $1.01 from the current $1.03. Projected revenues, he said, will likely fall around $2.5 million short of expenditures at first, though property values are expected to remain stable.
“Right now our sales tax collections are on budget,” Patterson said. “The state has said they’re looking at a three percent increase in sales taxes just from general growth. We did not budget that increase because our trend does not reflect that growth.”
The commissioners will also consider an employee cost of living adjustment and across-the-board pay increases for longtime employees in an effort to combat high turnover rates in some departments.
“That’s the next thing we’re going to be looking at: we have a couple of positions that do have a high turnover rate,” said Patterson. “Some of those are social workers, public buildings staff, as well as law enforcement. We’re working to determine now how much of that we think is salary-related. We’re comparing them to our surrounding counties primarily.”
Patterson pointed out that deputies in the Scotland County Sheriff’s Office can find better pay for their qualifications in neighboring counties.
“That probably would need to be a multiple-year policy that we look to set in place,” he said. “Obviously, I’m not opposed to it, but I’m not going to recommend a 10 percent increase in salary in any one year.”
Capital needs that the 2016-2017 budget may address include $197,000 to purchase and equip seven new sheriff’s vehicles, $145,000 for repairs to the count’s radio communications tower and a secure facility for radio equipment, and $135,000 for replacement of the courthouse chiller.
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.