Muddy Waters

Published 11:34 pm Wednesday, February 19, 2014

WINTON – The Mid-East Commission (MEC) wants Hertford County to reconsider the negative position it took earlier this month regarding its plans to build a new office.

While they did not rule out the possibility of changing their minds, the county’s Commissioners are still not completely sold on the idea.

At their meeting here Monday night, the Commissioners heard from Doug Mercer, chairman of the MEC Board of Directors. He apologized on behalf of the organization (a regional Council of Government that represents Beaufort, Bertie, Hertford, Martin and Pitt counties and the larger municipalities in those areas) for making the initial request for permission to move forward with the building project without providing the costs involved.

Mercer shared that info Monday night, saying the MEC Board, who has approved the project, is looking at $2.8 million in construction costs for a 17,500 square foot office to be built in the city of Washington (Beaufort County). The MEC’s current office (15,887 square feet of rental space at $138,000 per year) is located in the same city.

MEC operates on the annual dues paid by the counties and municipalities to administer federal funds in such areas of the Workforce Investment Act and Office of the Aging, to include the home delivered meals and congregate meals programs. In HertfordCounty’s case, they pay $7,092 in annual dues to MEC. In return, MEC oversees in excess of $770,000 in federal funding that comes to the county.

HertfordCounty has long supported MEC and its efforts, but do have concerns about the entity tackling long-term debt associated with the construction project.

Even though Hertford County’s membership dues will not increase nor has the MEC asked the county to absorb any of the construction costs, it was the consensus of the Commissioners that even more information is needed before they can support the project. The Commissioners made it clear that despite not being “on the hook” for helping to fund the building project, they were worried about MEC’s financial future. Commissioner Howard Hunter III went as far as to point out (NC) Senate Bill 82, which requires some of the federal programs now administered by MEC to go through a contractual bidding process.

“If Mid-East loses just the Workforce Development component of what they administer, they’re looking at losing millions of dollars a year,” Hunter said. “Sure, those funds will still come our way, but it may be through another COG (Council of Government) and not necessarily the MEC.”

Hertford County Manager Loria Williams later explained to this newspaper of what she called “the bigger picture of our concerns.”

“With a COG looking to borrow money for new construction, North Carolina’s Local Government Commission requires all the counties and cities/towns represented by that COG, in this case the Mid-East Commission, to approve the financing package through an inter-local agreement,” she said. “The LGC wants to see the backing of the government entities served by Mid-East, that gives the LGC some level of confidence, some assurance, that Mid-East will stick around to pay off this 40-year debt. Right now the counties, such as us, and municipalities are the proverbial bread and butter that feeds Mid-East.

“What’s unclear to us is what happens if Mid-East, God forbid, does fold and shut their doors with this debt over their heads,” Williams added. “Initially, Mid-East wanted our intent to remain as a member, without showing us the construction square footage or the debt numbers. Now they are showing us their expenditures side, but we do not have the knowledge of their revenues in order for us to make a sound decision.”

Mercer said MEC did a “bad job” in making that initial request. He presented the construction numbers, as mentioned earlier, and added that the annual debt service payments – to include utilities, insurance and cleaning/maintenance costs – would be roughly $10,000 per year more than the current costs of those same services plus the rent ($190,053.47 compared to $200,296 if MEC can swing a 4 percent construction loan through USDA).

He added that he felt the 17,500 square feet planned for the new office was a bit much, adding that he was more in favor of a 14,000-to-15,000 square foot office that would lower the construction costs.

Williams said she felt Mercer was underestimating the utilities/maintenance costs for a newer, larger office.

“Those numbers are too flat for my liking; they should be higher,” she said at Monday’s meeting.

In the end, the Hertford County Commissioners said they would like to see the MEC’s revenue stream numbers and what a smaller office would cost before reaching a final decision.

Mercer said providing the revenue numbers was not a problem. However, the MEC Board was at a point where they did not want to invest in another set of architectural plans showing a smaller building without having the blessings of HertfordCounty to proceed with the project.

“There in lies the problem, we can’t move forward without you (Hertford County) coming onboard with us,” said Decker, who noted that Beaufort, Martin and Pitt County officials have approved the project as well as most all of the major municipalities, to include Ahoskie and Murfreesboro.

But the Hertford County Commissioners didn’t budge, instead requesting the missing or incomplete numbers before considering reversing their Feb. 3 decision to not enter into an inter-local agreement for the MEC building project.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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