For or Against

Published 8:44 am Tuesday, August 3, 2010

JACKSON — The Northampton County Board of Commissioners are beginning the process of placing a bond referendum on November’s ballot regarding building a new high school.

On Monday, the commissioners agreed to begin the process by approving a bond counsel engagement letter and two resolutions.

While their actions do not bind the county to financial obligation, the measure does begin the course for placing the decision before voters.

The referendum will pose a question to voters as to whether or not they want the county to take on debt by way of a general obligation bond to construct an estimated $24 million centrally located high school.

County Manager Wayne Jenkins brought the matter before the board and presented a letter from Hunton & Williams, a law firm that will act as the bond counsel for the county.

Jenkins said the firm will charge $2,500 through the referendum whether the measure is passed or not by voters. The firm will charge $2.50 per $1,000 for the first $10 million of bonds issued and $1 per $1,000, thereafter.

If the referendum passes, $2,500 would apply along with an additional $39,000 for a $24 million general obligation bond if all bonds are issued all at the same time.

Commission Vice Chair James Hester asked if the citizens do not vote for the new high school if the county would still have to pay the $2,500.

Jenkins replied it would. Though not in the budget, Jenkins said the money would come from the county’s legal line item.

Commissioner Robert Carter moved to approve the bond counsel engagement; Commissioner Chester Deloatch offered a seconded. The vote passed in a 4-0 vote with Commissioner Virginia Spruill absent from that portion of the meeting.

Jenkins also presented a resolution that gives notice to the public of the intent to sell bonds. He recommended the commissioners approve the resolution based on their previous decision.

Carter asked Jenkins if the county would hear back from the Local Government Commission (LGC) before the November election.

Jenkins said beginning this process would notify the LGC of Northampton County’s intent as the county would be filing an application for the LGC’s decision.

Finance Officer Dot Vick noted that board should hear back from the LGC by November, unless they wait to see the results of the county’s audit, which is scheduled for October.

“I doubt they will not make a decision until they see the 2010 numbers,” said Vick later in the discussion.

Hester said he was concerned with how citizens would perceive the referendum after the commissioners began the process of placing it on the ballot. He suggested the public perception may be that the project is a done deal.

“I want them to vote their convictions,” said Hester.

He added these were the steps the county must take to place the decision before citizens.

Jenkins noted general statute does not allow non-obligatory questions on the ballot.

“There’s no other way to gauge the will of the people other than placing a binding question on the ballot,” he said.

Jenkins said the LGC would have the official say on the matter before November.

“The LGC is not going to let Northampton County over extend itself,” he said.

Jenkins added the commissioners could “pull the plug” up until a certain point before the referendum.

Hester asked how long the county had to authorize the bonds if the referendum was passed.

Jenkins said the board has seven years to authorize the bonds to build a new high school and that time period could be extended three more years, as what the county was doing with the Phase V Water project.

Jenkins shared a possible question to be used on the referendum: “Shall the order authorizing up to $24,000,000 in aggregate principal amount of general obligation bonds of Northampton County, which shall be secured by the full faith and credit of the County and payable from taxes levied by the County, for the purpose of financing the construction and acquisition on a new site of a new high school facility to consolidate the current two high schools within the County be approved?”

He said the question would be followed with a yes/no choice or for/against.

Jenkins said to the board if they we’re not comfortable with the matter, the referendum could be postponed until 2012.

After further discussion, the board decided to continue with the referendum process.

“I think we should continue the process, allow the process to continue its course,” said Carter.

Carter moved to approve the resolution, providing for publication of notice of the intent to file an application for general obligation funds; it was seconded by Hester. The motion passed in a 4-0 vote.

During their discussion for the last resolution to come before the board, Attorney Charles Vaughan referred to the third paragraph of the document that states, “Whereas, it appears to the Northampton County Board of Commissioners that the proposed project or some other expedient alternative is necessary to meet the needs of Northampton County for new high school construction or improvements to existing high school facilities.”

Hester moved to approve the final resolution; Carter offered a second. The motion was approved in a 4-0 vote.

Jenkins said later in an interview that at the board’s next meeting he will give a deadline as to when the commissioners can decide to continue or not to continue with the referendum and present another option to renovate an existing school to act as a high school. He noted that option may lead to a referendum or another financing option.