Proceed with caution

Published 10:10 am Tuesday, October 4, 2011

JACKSON — The Northampton County Department of Social Services (DSS) new facility project is moving forward, but it comes with a side of caution.

On Monday, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners agreed to open the $7.46 million project for bid under the supervision of County Manager Wayne Jenkins and in accordance with associated rules and regulations.

“The board of commissioners prioritized as one of the county’s top priority needs building a new DSS building,” said Dr. Al Wentzy, Northampton DSS Director. “The board has already approved the design plan. The (United States) Department of Agriculture (Rural Development) and North Carolina agencies approved the project.”

He added USDA Rural Development provided loan assurances along with stimulus grant funds for the project. The project was made possible through an opportunity for the county to be reimbursed by the federal government for 65 percent of the cost of the building as well as American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds funneled through the USDA Rural Development.

The new facility is funded by a 30-year, $6.96 million loan as well as a $500,000 grant. Congressman G.K. Butterfield helped secure $300,000 in additional funding for the grant. The estimated annual debt payment would be around $440,000, with the county being reimbursed for 65 percent of that amount.

A 15- acre lot next to the Cultural and Wellness Center on NC 305 near Jackson has been purchased on which the new DSS office will be built.

Wentzy said the county has invested approximately $440,000 on the project and it is ready for bid.

“Please, I would like to emphasize that the board’s approval today to move to the bid process does not incur any obligations or commitment on the part of the county, but it simply allows the contractors to take the prepared drawings and propose bid prices for the project,” Wentzy said.

He added after the bids were received the board would ultimately have the final decision.

“The request today is to simply go to bid, not to expend any more funding,” said Commissioner Robert Carter, who serves on the DSS Board. “When the process is complete that is when this board would actually make a decision in further expending funding.”

Carter added he hopes his colleagues would take those facts into consideration.

Commissioner Virginia Spruill asked if there were deadlines as to when the funding had to be expended.

Jenkins said ARRA funded projects would have to be completed and closed out by July 14, 2013 with the construction window on the project being 12-15 months.

Finance Officer Dot Vick and Jenkins recommended approval, but cautioned the commissioners about the pending financial audit.

“I do not feel we should spend any money until the audit is complete,” Vick wrote on the decision paper.

Jenkins said he concurred with Vick’s comment, but recommended if the board wanted to move forward to do so vigilantly.

“Concerning the circumstances surrounding the project, the funding uniqueness of the project; I would certainly encourage you to proceed with caution,” he said.

Carter moved to approved the recommendation to move forward with the bid process. Spruill offered a second and the motion passed without objection.

The movement by the board on the project did not come without come without concern from citizens. Jenkins noted he supplied the board with copies of two letters he received from Jack Saunders of Henrico and Doug Hughes, president of the Lake Gaston Association.

Saunders wrote in his letter that the remedy of replacing the facility is not an affordable choice for the taxpayers of the county.

“Costs have continued to rise everywhere and in all areas while the housing market and commercial investment in Northampton County have stagnated,” he wrote. “While taxpayers, including myself, were supportive of the tax rate increase that was necessary last year, taking on debt that the taxpayers are hard pressed to pay is not in the best interest of your constituents in any part of the county.”

Hughes, in his letter, asked the board to either delay the project again or cancel it altogether.

“It concerns me that Dr. Wentzy seems proud of the fact that his department serves 42 percent of the county’s citizens,” he wrote. “That should be a clear indication that the county needs to invest its limited resources in reducing that number, not increasing it.”

He noted taking on the additional debt “runs the very real risk of increasing that number by putting an additional tax burden on those that are already struggling to make ends meet.”

Commission Chairwoman Fannie Greene said the board would proceed with caution.