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Bertie seeks $15 million for new high school

WINDSOR – Bertie County is applying for $15 million in Qualified School Construction Bonds (QSCB).

Monday night the Bertie County Commissioners approved the application at the request of the Bertie County Board of Education, but did so over the objection of Commissioner Rick Harrell.

Harrell, who was the only commissioner to oppose the measure during the vote, said he was not prepared to ask for $15 million without having more time to look into the implications of the measure.

Bertie County Manager Zee Lamb said the Bertie school board had approved applying for $15 million towards the construction of a new high school. If the bonds are sold for 15 years, it would be with no interest. At a 17-year payback, the interest rate would be only two and half percent.

Lamb said the school board had only learned of the availability of another $101 million recently. The amount is available only to the 45 Tier I counties in North Carolina and school districts can apply for up to $15 million.

“If only five apply, we’ll get $15 million, but the application is due August 11 and will be funded on a first-come, first-serve basis based on those applications that are in on that date,” Lamb said.

Harrell asked what the $15 million was to be used for and Commissioner Chairman Norman M. Cherry Sr. said for the construction of a new high school.

Lamb said the county had already been approved $1.2 million in the first round of QSCB funding and another $1.8 million in the second round.

“That would give us $18 million if the $15 million were approved,” Lamb said

“What is the approximate cost of a new high school,” Harrell asked.

Lamb said estimates were from $21 million to as high as $25 million.

Commissioner J. Wallace Perry asked about the debt service that would be taken on if a new high school were to be approved. Lamb said it would amount to roughly $1.1 million per year and equal 11 or 12 cents on the tax rate.

“And we would still need five or six million more,” Perry said.

Perry then noted the county was still currently paying debt service on Bertie Middle School.

Lamb also said the county would have to sell the bonds by December 31, unless they request an extension.

“I have a little bit of an issue,” Harrell said. “Other than a brief conversation with Zee, I haven’t really had much information on this. I don’t know that how I can support a motion to borrow $15 million.”

Cherry said the timing was short because someone didn’t get the information to the two boards.

“The ball was dropped, I’ll leave it at that,” Cherry said. “When we found out it had been dropped, we helped the school board pick it up again.

“If we don’t apply by August 11, we will lose the ability to do anything,” Cherry said.

Harrell said his concern was if there were few applications because of the current state of the economy, the tax payers of Bertie County would be obligated to pay back $15 million.

Lamb said the board was not obligating itself to sell the bonds, but was giving itself the opportunity.

“If we apply for the $15 million, who makes the decision as to whether we go forward or not,” Harrell inquired.

Lamb indicated the commissioners would make that decision.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m opposed to building a new high school,” Harrell said. “I am opposed to applying for $15 million in funds right now.”

Cherry said if the board didn’t apply, it did not have options.

“If we only get $3 million or $5 million, you’re a long ways from enough funding to build a new high school,” Lamb said.

Commission Vice Chairman L.C. Hoggard III then said he understood the concerns, but felt it was important to move forward.

“I sat here and listened to everyone talk and I know where we are,” Hoggard said. “If we apply for $15 million, there’s no guarantee we’re going to get it. If we get $5 million or $3 million, at least we have that.”

Hoggard said even if the county couldn’t build a new high school right now, it was important to begin some work towards a new high school even if it meant strategic planning and beginning to build some buildings at the current time.

“I came on this board 10 years ago and I thought we would have a new high school by now, but we don’t,” he said. “The (current high) school could be a catastrophe because it is falling apart. With that, I make a motion we go forward.”

Commissioner Charles Smith then offered a second to the motion.

Cherry called for a vote and only Harrell offered an objection.