N’hampton seeks Phase 2 funding

Published 9:21 am Thursday, September 10, 2009

JACKSON — There will be no Regional First Responders’ Training Facility built in Northampton County, at least in the immediate future.

County officials here seeking the de-obligation of funds for the project from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development, though they are hopeful the same funds could be used for a different project in the future.

On Wednesday, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners agreed to request USDA Rural Development to de-obligate $1.75 million earmarked for the First Responders’ Training Facility Project.

At the same time, the commissioners are also requesting USDA Rural Development to re-obligate the funds to the county to construct the second phase of the Cultural and Wellness Center pending a decision by the board at the appropriate time when financing can be found.

Northampton County, in partnership with Roanoke Chowan Community College, applied for USDA Rural Development funding of the First Responders’ project. The county received and accepted a “Letter of Conditions” from USDA Rural Development in March 2008 which notified them of the availability of funds from the government entity in the amount of a $1.6 million loan and a $150,000 grant. The facility would train and offer instructional courses for first responders within the region.

County Manager Wayne Jenkins presented the decision paper to the commissioners at their regular meeting.

Jenkins noted the economic downturn, the funding shortfalls on both the state and county levels, which effects the community college (RCCC), and the county’s inability to identify a funding partner for the project as reasons to de-obligate the funds. He also noted the USDA “Letter of Conditions” which required the county to have the facility up and running in three years (from 2008), a condition Jenkins was doubtful could happen within that timeframe.

“We don’t have a funding partner, there’s none on the horizon,” he said. “It’s extremely, extremely unlikely that project will materialize.”

Jenkins said he has been in contact with RCCC President Dr. Ralph Soney. A copy of a letter from Jenkins to Soney was provided to the commissioners, which informed the community college president of the project’s status.

The second part of Jenkins’ recommendation was to request USDA to re-obligate the $1.75 million to construct the second phase of the Cultural and Wellness Center.

Jenkins explained several months of preparation will be required as the county goes through the USDA application process again.

Then, if the funding is approved by USDA and a Letter of Conditions is offered to the county, a window of time, (typically in years as with the First Responders’ Project) will be given for phase two of the Cultural and Wellness Center.

“The immediate extension of $1.75 million is not what I’m asking for today,” he said. “I’m asking for your consideration in requesting that USDA, which is a little unorthodox in this obligation and de-obligation process, to consider re-obligating those funds to assist us in building the second phase of the Cultural and Wellness Center, when at such time you choose to move forward with that second phase.”

Commission Chair Robert Carter clarified Jenkins’ recommendation further stating the county had no express term of using the $1.75 million, but rather was positioning the county to go through the USDA process again for phase two of the Cultural and Wellness Center, in which the de-obligation of the First Responders’ Project funding was the necessary first step.

“If we do nothing at this time in reference to de-obligating and re-obligating, do we stand the risk of losing the funds,” asked Commission Vice Chair Fannie Greene.

“We will lose the funds,” said Jenkins. “If we do not build the project out and put it in service or request de-obligation of those funds, two things are certain: one, we will lose the funding and, second, it will not be in our advantage in the future projects if we request funding from USDA.”

Carter asked Jenkins to talk the board through the process and how long of a period of time it would take.

Jenkins said this was just initiating the process and the first step would be to sit down to talk to the county’s Finance Officer Dot Vick to receive her input.

“That’s the first thing we would do,” he said.

He added if the request was made to USDA to de-obligate the funds then it would have to be approved at the state level, a process that could take 30-90 days to get a return response. Taking in consideration the pre-application and the application process, Jenkins said it could be this time next year before USDA would even consider funding the project.

“We could be looking at anywhere from 18 months to as much as five years or so,” he said. “I just think that it’s being proactive on the part of the county. The Cultural and Wellness Center, as you know, was a phased in project…it’s well used by our citizens, a very popular project that this board engaged in.”

He continued, “We knew going in we could only build the first phase. We knew there would have to be subsequent phases. We knew with both phase one and phase two we were not going to approve something we could not afford. I would be negligent if I didn’t position you to be able to make that decision for our county citizens 18 months-five years out.”

Greene said she agreed and made the motion to request USDA to de-obligate the $1.75 million for the First Responders’ Project and request to re-obligate the funds for the second phase of the Cultural and Wellness Center contingent upon the county making a decision at the appropriate time when financing can be found.

Commissioner James Hester offered a second. The motion passed without objection.