Lee commissioners will put $23 million college bond referendum on ballot

Apr. 22, 2014 @ 05:02 AM

Despite questioning that ranged from friendly skepticism to outright contention, the Lee County Commissioners decided Monday night to add a $23 million bond referendum to the ballot in November's general election.

The referendum would cover a variety of building needs at Central Carolina Community College’s Lee County campus. In order of priority as identified by the college, they are:

* A new health science center, $9 million.

* Expansion and renovation at the veterinary medical technology building, $5 million.

* Expansion and renovation at the Dennis A. Wicker Civic Center, $4 million.

* Assorted repairs to main campus buildings and the emergency services training center, $4 million.

* Renovation at the business incubator, $1 million.

Julian Philpott, chairman of the college's board of trustees, said that the state and local unemployment rates are improving but still not great, and that these projects would directly address that.

"We feel that there's still a lot of work to be done, and we feel like Central Carolina Community College can be a major player in that — not only in Lee County, but in [Chatham and Harnett] counties,” he said.

Commissioner Jim Womack, however, was less than impressed with the documents college officials provided giving their rationale behind the requests.

"I don't believe the community college has made a business case for a single building … based on local shortfalls and local education needs, and tied to specific skill sets," he said, adding that he and other commissioners want to do their own analysis but can't because they don't have enough information.

County Manager John Crumpton added that it's not just commissioners who have those questions, but likely ordinary citizens as well.

Philpott countered that he thought they had presented a good case, and that quality facilities will naturally translate to better educational opportunities. Womack, though, continued to press for more specifics along with County Commissioners Chairman Charlie Parks.

"I think it would help you sell your case … if we can show where you're having to turn away people, or getting a 98 percent hire rate, or whatever it is,” Parks said, asking for more metrics on the programs the buildings in question would benefit.

College officials continued to argue that the information they gave for several of their requests — including national growth rates of certain fields, median pay rates, enrollment data and other information — did provide exactly what the commissioners wanted.

And Bobby Powell, a college trustee who was serving as chairman when the commissioners set up a similar-sized bond to fund renovations at Lee County High School several years ago, said there's also the simple matter of rewarding the college for past patience and sacrifices.

"I distinctly remember the county commissioners asking us would we 'Back up, help get the bond for the schools passed, and you'll be the next building project,'" Powell said.

Later, he appealed to the commissioners again: "We realize your pot of money is not endless. But we also realize that if we don't present our needs at they present themselves, they'll never get addressed."

By law, the state pays for community colleges's personnel and equipment costs, but county governments must pay for buildings and other capital needs.

The county ultimately agreed unanimously to put the $23 million in requests up to voters in the fall — but several said it was only because they needed to vote soon in order for it to get on the ballot at all. Discussion, they said, is not over.

Womack also suggested that the county put not only these requests on the November ballot but also requests from Lee County Schools for a new elementary school — and the math of how much each request would raise taxes if approved — so voters can get a broader picture and assess their own priorities.

The board also:

* Approved the consent agenda.

* Renewed a contract with Logan Systems for the Register of Deeds.

* Approved changes to the 2015 Consolidated Health Department Agreement.

* Heard Crumpton's presentation of a capital improvement plan for 2015-19.

* Approved a budget amendment from staff.

* Heard the monthly financial report, in which it was revealed that while sales tax revenues were flat, property tax revenues are up 5-6 percent from what was expected.

* Watched video from a statewide lobbying group of county commission boards about the importance of pressing local legislators on issues related to lottery funds being used for public school projects.

* Heard updates from Crumpton about a joint meeting with city officials on the Partnership for Prosperity and work being proposed at O.T. Sloan Park.

* Tabled a vote on paying up to $40,000 to rejoin the Fort Bragg Regional Alliance after the Democratic commissioners questioned the actual impact it has on Lee County compared to other projects they could be funding, and also asked to wait until the alliance's director could come to a meeting in person to make his case.