Does need outweigh gain?

Published 11:34 am Tuesday, December 13, 2016

JACKSON – A public comment led to a discussion regarding a plan to possibly spend over $2.5 million of taxpayer money to renovate an old county-owned building.

At Monday’s meeting of the Northampton County Board of Commissioners, Tony Burnette, speaking in order during a period set aside to hear comments from local citizens, said he had spoken last week to County Manager Kimberly Turner about a pending project that calls for the renovation of the old Northampton Department of Social Services office. Those plans also include spending nearly $150,000 in performing security upgrades to the county courthouse.

“Is it true that the county will spend over $2 million to renovate the old DSS building; I need to hear something about that from this board,” Burnette asked.

“Mr. Burnette, there has been a discussion; in fact it has been approved by this board to move in that direction,” answered Commission Chairman Robert Carter.

“So, the board has approved the two million dollars,” Burnette inquired.

“There has been no monetary amount yet approved,” Carter replied.

Turner chimed in on the discussion to confirm that the funding portion of the plan has not been brought to the board for their approval.

“Only the plans have been approved,” Turner said.

She said those plans include tearing down the old wing of the former DSS office, constructing a new space there and also renovating the rear section of the building. Once completed, if the funding is approved, the County Manager’s office, Human Resources, Finance Office, Economic Development, Board of Elections, and the commissioners’ meeting room will be moved to that location. Additionally, Probation and Parole will move from a rented space nto the county office building now used for Finance, and the meeting area for the commissioners. That meeting area will be absorbed by the judicial system as an auxiliary courtroom.

“We can no longer use the front part of the (old DSS) building because it’s in bad shape,” Turner said.

She added the price tag for the entire project is $2.65 million. That includes the renovations to the old DSS building, and the security upgrade project at the courthouse. The latter came through suggestions made by the Courthouse Safety Committee, a plan endorsed by Chief District Court Judge Brenda Branch. 

Carter asked Turner to update the board’s two newest members – Geneva Faulkner and Charles Tyner Sr. – as well as the public seated in the audience as to status of two county services that were currently housed in rented office space.

Turner said that even though Probation and Parole is a state agency, the county is required to provide an office to that department at a price of $19,000 annually. She added that the county’s Human Resources department is also housed in rental space at $6,000 per year.

Turner stressed that the plans to renovate the old DSS building and the security upgrades to the courthouse were carefully studied and that both “are affordable within the scope of our county budget.”

“I would like to see those plans,” said Tyner.

Burnette said the $2 million price tag was “floating out in the community,” meaning it was being talked about by county citizens.

“Has a (construction) bid been put out,” he asked. “Has a contractor placed a bid?”

While no bids have yet been solicited or received, pending the approval by the commissioners of the funds needed for the projects, Turner said an architect is under contract.

“He (the architect) has a projected project cost and that cost is $2.65 million,” Turner stated.

“This is my argument to this board; we, and by that I mean the citizens of this county, spent $34 million on a new Social Services building, knowing that we were going to go back and so something to the old DSS building,” Burnette said.

Turner corrected Burnette’s price tag on the new DSS facility, saying is was $6 million.

“Okay, we spent $6 million, but I thought we needed to build a new DSS building because the old building was condemned, but now you’re saying we’re going to turn right around and sink two million dollars in that old building when we have other things here this county that need to be worked on, such as education,” Burnette noted.

“Why would be condemn a building, saying we can’t use it no more, and go and spend all that money on a new Social Services building and now we’re saying we can use it (the old building),” remarked Tyner. “I don’t understand why we said that to the public and now it looks like we’re going to spend over two million dollars on a building that everyone thought we had no use for.”

Tyner added that even though he has not seen it firsthand, it has come to his attention that the new Social Services building is not being used to its full potential.

“I’ve heard there are empty spaces, six to nine rooms there that are not being used,” he stressed.

Turner said the old DSS building was not condemned.

“I wasn’t the county manager when all this took place, but I don’t recall it being said that building had no further use by the county,” Turner stated. “Yes, the front part of that building is in bad shape, that’s why we want to tear that part down as it would cost more to renovate it than it would to construct a new building.”

Faulkner inquired if the county has a strategic, long-range plan for facility improvements/upgrades to county-owned buildings.

“That helps when making these decisions to build or renovate; we need to look to maximize our existing spaces,” Faulkner noted. “It costs money every time an architect is hired. Perhaps we could look at building multi-purpose types of buildings. We need to look at what lies beyond and look beyond the loudest cry we hear at the present time.”

Carter said the county does have a five-year capital outlay plan in place.

“However, with new ideas coming forward, we are receptive to those,” Carter said.

Turner promised to provide more information to the new board members about the project.

It was also mentioned by Carter that perhaps a town hall type of meeting could be scheduled for citizens to come forth and inquire of their elected leaders of the exact plans currently being studied as well as the taxpayer dollars needed to fund those projects.

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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