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DSS project still on hold

JACKSON — The new Northampton County Department of Social Services building remains at a standstill despite a request from DSS Director Dr. Al Wentzy to county officials to reconsider moving forward with the project.

On Monday, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners voted 3-1 to not move forward with the $7.46 million project until the financial mid-year audit report.

On November 1, after hearing their audit report, the commissioners voted unanimously to implement an immediate hiring freeze with the exception of public safety; freeze all county capital outlay spending effective immediately and delaying the new DSS building and Phase V water improvement projects until the mid-year audit report scheduled for the second meeting in February and readdress the matter at that time.

The board’s Monday decision comes after receiving a memorandum dated November 8 from Dr. Wentzy who asked the commissioners to reconsider their decision of placing construction of the DSS building on hold.

Wentzy said in the memo that placing the project on hold was “tantamount to killing the project and making it financially impossible to proceed.”

“I do not believe the Board knew/knows the full ramifications of imposing a ‘hold’ on the DSS construction project and in truth, the decision translates to making the building project beyond the scope of funds available,” Wentzy wrote.

Wentzy noted the project had been downsized already, from $9.6 million to $7.46 million, in order to accommodate the available funding.  To meet the reduced funds available, in discussion with the Architect, officials anticipated the additional cost savings would come from expeditiously moving forward and capitalizing on: low construction costs due to the recession, take advantage of the winter season as it is typically known as the “light construction period,” and moving forward with the project quickly minimizes the construction interest loan period.

Wentzy also outlined highlights of the audit that prompted the commissioners’ decision to place the DSS building on hold.

He noted the total county fund balance stood at 17.66 percent and the unreserved fund balance at 8.28 percent. The auditor said in the November 1 meeting that 13 percent was the lowest the Local Government Commission would let that fund balance go and the county would be receiving a letter from the state inquiring what their plans would be.

Wentzy also noted that property tax revenues remained stable, sales tax loss was more than $850,513, human services show almost a $500,000 reduction in costs and there were indications that the county would start to collect additional revenue from Lowes Distribution Center in Garysburg.

“The major issue not discussed and having a major impact on the financial well-being of the county is the wisely passed $.09 property tax increase which reportedly will generate ($1.7 million) which clearly appears to override any crisis situation and would seem to sustain the financial health of the county and allow the county to project and support projects as the approved DSS Building project, especially now when clearly it is cost effective to proceed,” Wentzy’s memo stated.

Wentzy concluded his memo requesting the commissioners “to stick to the plan of seeking commissioner approval of the DSS building blueprints at the November 15 meeting (Monday) and authorize the county to publish the blueprints for bid with bid-opening on December 20.

Commission Vice Chair James Hester said he had a little bit of resentment to the third paragraph of the memo where Wentzy suggested that the board did not understand the full ramifications of placing the project on hold. He said the commissioners based their decision on the auditors report and the fact that the county was in no financial position where they could proceed at this time.

“We dealt with the same issue with the (new) high school, we had to look at the finances of our county,” Hester said. “Not only do we represent the DSS Board, but we represent 23,000 citizens and they’re looking to us.”

Hester noted the board did not scrap the project, but chose to hold it until the mid-year review.

“I don’t want the public to feel like we did not seriously discuss and examine the financial situation of this county,” he concluded.

Commissioner Robert Carter, who serves on the DSS Board, asked his colleagues reconsider moving forward on the project.

“These are one of the things we as a board are tasked with is to maintain fiscal responsibility,” said Carter.

He noted the board could halt the project at anytime and noted there is a process that needed to take place.

“We have not started any of the process,” Carter said. “Fellow board members I would ask that you allow the process to move forward expending little to no funds necessary, but move forward with the process and when we get to a point in time that the process can go no further we put a halt to it.”

Carter said at this point in time the county wouldn’t be expending any funds to move forward.

Commission Chairwoman Fannie Greene said she is “very much” supportive of the DSS building and that the board is not trying to scrap the project.

“I am so much in favor of it, but I think that this county elected me to be fiscally responsible of the spending of this county’s funds and that is the concern I have at this time,” she said.

Greene added she had researched the matter extensively and noted the county would indeed be spending money on the process at this time.

“It’s impossible to move forward at this time without spending money,” she said.

Greene said she also checked with contractors and there were none that would give the county a 90-day bidding process.

“So if we spend money right now to advertise these bids, we would have to do the same thing when the report comes in February,” she said. “So we would be spending money again, is that fiscally responsible on my part or the commissioners’ part? Those are the kind of concerns I have.”

Carter motioned to authorize County Manager Wayne Jenkins and Finance Officer Dot Vick to continue the process on the construction project, including filing an application with the Local Government Commission.

There was no second offered for Carter’s motion. Greene called for the vote with Carter voting “aye” and Greene, Hester and Commissioner Chester Deloatch voting against the motion. The motion failed.