Public hearing set

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 25, 2008

JACKSON – The public hearing has been set.

On Monday, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners scheduled a public hearing to receive public comment regarding the county borrowing funds from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development to construct a Regional First Responder Training facility.

The Regional First Responder Training facility is a proposed project where the county will partner with Roanoke Chowan Community College (RCCC), which would only promote the facility.

Despite debating the topic at their regular meeting on Feb.18, the commissioners seemed to be on the same page at Monday’s meeting.

March 18 at 1:30 p.m. was recommended for the public hearing. Commissioner James Hester (D-1st) voted to accept the date and Commissioner Virginia Spruill (D-2nd) seconded the motion.

Before the motion passed, Hester explained his change of heart on the topic. Hester said he based his decision at the Feb. 18th meeting to not hold a public hearing on the issue in regard to the audit the board had just received.

“It put the fear of God in me,” he said. “I thought we were going to have to take out an I.O.U. from the county.”

Hester continued that he had since learned “several things” about the USDA funds and was “better informed on the topic.”

“Had I been more informed, I would have not made the (Feb. 18) motion,” said Hester.

The motion passed without objection.

Later in a phone interview with the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Hester expanded on the information he had received.

He said Spruill, who serves on the RCCC Board of Trustees, informed him Halifax Community College (HCC) had been contacted about the project and would assist in seeking additional funding sources.

Hester continued by saying United States Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) had placed in a good word to USDA for the funding of the project and upon a public hearing being held and the approval by the county’s auditor the money would be held for three years.

“We can then release the money,” he said.

At the Feb.18 meeting, auditor Chris Costner with Martin Starnes & Associates presented the commissioners’ with a mid-year review of the county’s funds.

Among his top concerns was the county’s fund balance, which trend has been on the decrease over the last few years. He warned the commissioners to beware funding projects with the general fund, even with the intention of paying it back.

Phase one of the project would cost $1.75 million and the county is the sole loan funding holder as RCCC’s only role in the partnership would be to market the facility. The college ultimately would not sustain any debt from the project.

The project in whole is estimated in costing $12-$14 million. A 20-25 acre tract near Odom Prison is targeted for the project.

In August 2007, the commissioners directed County Manager Wayne Jenkins to submit a grant application to USDA Rural Development for $3 million (to be paid back over a 38-year period) for the project.