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DSS building plans move forward

JACKSON — The construction of a new Northampton County Department of Social Services building is moving ahead as funding has now been secured.

On Monday, the Northampton County Board of Commissioner accepted a letter of conditions for a loan and grant from United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development for the construction of the $7,466,000 building.

USDA Rural Development Area Specialist Susan Christensen said the 30 year loan to the county will not exceed $6.96 million and a grant of $500,000 will be allocated to the project.

County Manager Wayne Jenkins presented the details on the project during a public hearing held prior to the Board’s decision.

“The federal government will reimburse the county approximately 65 percent of direct dollars spent for providing federal services,” said Jenkins.

He added without that reimbursement from the government the annual debt payment for the facility would be $460,000 annually.

However, with the reimbursement the payment is reduced to approximately $142,000 annually out of county coffers.

Jenkins said the planned facility location is adjacent to the Northampton County Cultural and Wellness Center. The 66,869 square foot facility will sit on a 15-acre site.

Commissioner Robert Carter asked Jenkins to explain the conditions at the current DSS building.

“I can tell you the need has been in this county for several years,” said Jenkins.

He added DSS Director Dr. Al Wentzy has brought the need for a new building to the commissioners during the budgeting process for the past four or five years.

Jenkins referred to Wentzy to provide more details on the conditions of the current building.

Wentzy said the building was built in 1924, serving first as a nursing home and then DSS.

“We have people that are (working in) the exit ways and we’re probably, honestly, violating fire codes,” he said.

He added there were other violations as well and that the federal government requires a proper facility to be built in order to administering 40 some federal programs.

Commissioner Chester Deloatch asked why the facility needed 15 acres of land.

Wentzy said that was a decision made in regard to having ample parking, possible future expansion as well as the county possibly using the additional acreage in the future.

Wentzy said the building would revert to the county and the commissioners’ decision and could be of use to the county after renovations.

Jenkins offered one option for the use of the building.

“The facility does have useful life remaining,” he said.

Jenkins said the board has been approached about several long-term capital projects for the county.

“Hypothetically, with some minor face lifting and rearranging inside; potentially, local government that now exists on Courthouse Square could move out and move into that facility, including this meeting room,” he said.

Jenkins added that freeing up that space could allow court officials to utilize the area to supply space needs.

“That’s only one (use for the DSS building); there could be many,” he said.

Jenkins suggested when it came to decide what to do with the old DSS facility the commissioners could appoint a committee of officials and citizens to make a recommendation.

Commissioner Virginia Spruill questioned what the current building would be used for once it was vacant.

Commission Chairwoman Fannie Greene asked Jenkins to explain the funding.

Jenkins said the project exceeded the amount that is generally allocated to the state for the Rural Development loan and grant program.

“The funding source that was actually tapped for this was direct appropriation for Recovery Funds (American Recovery and Reinvestment funds) through USDA,” he said. “That’s why this project was so attractive at this time.”

Jenkins later added that Congressman G.K. Butterfield helped secure $300,000 in additional funding for the grant, which was originally set at a maximum of $200,000.

Jack Saunders asked the board if they knew what the operational cost would be as well as “soft costs,” which include furniture and landscaping.

“Because once it’s there, it’s just like the Wellness and Fitness Center, it’s going to have to be paid for and operated,” he said.

Jenkins said he didn’t have operational costs with him, but that he could provide that to Saunders later.

Jenkins noted that construction cost will be $5.59 million and furniture/fixtures/equipment would cost $320,000. The latter is also included in the $7.46 million price tag.

Doug Hughes was concerned with how large the building was and noted that the county would see increases with operation of heating and cooling and other operational costs on top of the $142,000 annual debt payment.

“Did we plan for the smallest building that will provide the needs of the Department of Social Services,” he asked. “That’s a big building and a lot of money.”

Jenkins said this project is a revised and downsized version of what was proposed. Meetings with DSS staff originally had the footprint of the building at 72,000 square feet. He added that during busy times at the current DSS building people are parking on the sides of the road.

Carter offered a motion to accept the letter of conditions from Rural Development. Noting that DSS services more than 40 percent of county citizens, he said he was honored to make the motion.

Commissioner James Hester followed with a second. The motion passed without objection.