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New DSS office gets green light

JACKSON — The construction of a new Northampton County Department of Social Services facility has the green light.

On Thursday, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners agreed to move forward once again with the project in a 4-1 vote.

Earlier this week, the commissioners tabled the project pending a Tuesday decision from the Local Government Commission (LGC) in reference to the county incurring debt to construct the building. At that same meeting, the results of an analysis report prepared by Maximus revealed DSS had an average reimbursement rate of 56.2 percent for the past year. The county based its annual payment calculations on a 65 percent reimbursement rate.

The $7.46 million project, funded in part by a $6.96 million loan and a $500,000 grant from United States Department of Agriculture-Rural Development, relies heavily on a 65 percent reimbursement from the federal government for the services provided by Northampton County DSS.

On Thursday, County Manager Wayne Jenkins said the LGC did approve the county’s application.

Jenkins provided the board with information requested by Commissioner Robert Carter, which included the projected estimated tax Northampton would receive from two current ongoing economic development projects, Enviva and the Severn Peanut expansion.

Jenkins noted the Severn Peanut Company figures were estimated at a $20 million build out in value.

“We don’t know how much of that value is going to be personal business or how much is going be strictly structures,” Jenkins said. “So our tax administrator assumed of the $20 million, 25 percent of that value would be for personal business, which would carry a depreciation value there.”

Meanwhile, 75 percent was estimated to be structures.

“Again, the $20 million is unknown,” said Jenkins.

According to the information provided by Jenkins, beginning in 2014 the county would have an estimated $87,000 in taxes due from Severn Peanut. In 2015 and 2016, the amount of taxes due goes up to $174,000 with the $20 million estimated build out.

Jenkins noted with the Enviva wood pellet mill project (a $60 million investment), Northampton has entered into an economic development agreement with the company, in which Enviva will benefit from a 50 percent rebate on taxes the first five years. He added that rebate depends on two thresh holds: the total value of investment made by the company and how many people are employed.

This year Enviva will have an estimated $4,844.16 in taxes and in 2013, $45,922.08.

Beginning in 2014, Enviva (with the thresh holds met and the rebate applied) would have an estimated tax due of $89,422. In 2015, the amount of taxes due goes to $174,000 and in 2016 to $261,000.

Commissioner Robert Carter asked Finance Officer Dot Vick to explain $498,516 (for land purchase and architect fees for the DSS project) owed to the general fund.

“If you vote to move forward, what we will do with that is once the loan is closed the money will be deposited in an escrow account,” she said. “We will send invoices for these amounts that have been approved by USDA to reimburse the county. That money then has to go back to the general fund.”

Vick said Carter asked for a funding method to pay the interest with, She added the interest would come in at approximately $9,000 a month.

“The board could approve to lend (approximately) $220,000 of this $498,000 back to the project to pay the interest with monthly,” she said.

Carter said the revised construction interest amount, according to Vick’s figures, is $214,552.80.

“So we would have this $214,000 to cover that $9,000 per month, which would probably be for 20-plus months.

Vick said she estimated around two years, which she said should be sufficient.

“So the debt payment, board, for 24 months could come, if it is your desire, from this loan of $214,000,” Carter said. “By that time (with) Severn Peanut Company we have another $87,000 to put on that debt payment. We have another $46,000 from the Enviva project.”

Carter reiterated to the tax information provided by Jenkins.

He also referred from minutes to a department head meeting in which he said Planning and Zoning Administrator William Flynn said building permits are coming in steady.

“(Economic Development Director) Mr. Gary Brown shared the following information at that meeting, ‘There are a couple of industrial projects in the pipeline’,” Carter said. “It is my belief that we’re not going to have a problem (funding the project).”

He referred to the tax increase alluded to by Jenkins.

“Never before have I heard anything about a tax increase to build a project,” Carter said.

After further discussion, Commission Chair James Hester weighed in on the topic.

Hester said the board was talking about spending money the county does not have.

“County government is responsible for the citizens of Northampton County and we are responsible for carrying on good business practices,” he said. “I see these figures here and they look good, but all they are right now are figures. None of it is in the bank.”

Hester said he knew the need for a new DSS facility, but those in need of DSS programs are getting the help they need now.

“I just can’t see spending money that we don’t have,” he said. “It’s not good business practice and it’s not fair to the taxpayers and it’s not fair to DSS to get a building half built and have to quit.”

Commissioner Fannie Greene said her concerns were similar to Hester’s, but she was also concerned about the need for a new school as well.

“The other thing I’m really torn with you all know we’re going to have to do something about our schools,” she said.

Before the board voted they also discussed the possibility of a quarter cent sales tax.

“I asked County Manager Jenkins to bring forth information on putting the quarter cent local option sales tax on the referendum,” Carter said. “If approved I hope it would come through the general election, whereas it would cost us no more than $1,500.”

Carter added those 40-plus employees of DSS will campaign to have the referendum passed and those funds would be earmarked for the DSS project.

Carter motioned to go forward with the DSS project. Commissioner Virginia Spruill offered a second. Commissioner Chester Deloatch said Carter was a “good salesman” and had intended to vote no, but said he would vote yes. Greene noted she was “reluctantly” going with those in support of the project.

The motion carried 4-1 with Hester voicing opposition.

Following the meeting, DSS Director Shelia Manley Evans said she was excited about the outcome.

“We the DSS team want to sincerely thank the Board of Commissioners, USDA-RD, US Rep. G. K. Butterfield, Northampton County DSS Board, and the County Manager for their personal and collective support in the decision for the new DSS Building. In our opinion this positive action will be a continuous legacy in providing for the well-being of our county for decades to come and we thank you,” she said. “I’m excited to know that we all can serve our citizens under one roof together. Clients nor workers will be at risk due to the current safety issues. Please know that the vision of our previous Director Dr. Al Wentzy) will be realized with this new building.”

Northampton DSS Board Chair Eugene Taylor was also happy with the outcome.

“I am very elated at the decision that was made. I think the commissioners made a very wise decision based on needs, not on wants,” he said. “A new building is very much in need for DSS…it’s way, way overdue.”