In decisions made by the Sampson County Board of Commissioners to obligate and de-obligate USDA loans for the projects, the commissioners voted Monday 3-2 to move forward with Charles E. Perry and unanimously halted the SCC facility.
Amid economic distress and a tight county budget, commissioners voted unanimously in October 2008 to delay both projects for another year.
With a year’s time rolling around, USDA gave county officials an ultimatum — go forward with loan obligations or de-obligate the loans, both of which were approved more than four years ago, in 2005. USDA’s notification was followed by an Oct. 12 joint meeting between the commissioners, city and county school boards and SCC trustees.
Last week, the Sampson County Board of Education voted unanimously (7-0) in support of moving forward with the C.E. Perry project. The vote amongst county commissioners at their Monday meeting was not nearly as unequivocal.
Commissioner Billy Lockamy pointed to the local hog industry and the adverse effects which have had “a ripple effect” on Sampson County and its tax base.
“We’re an agriculture-run county, and that’s the way we’re probably going to stay,” said Lockamy, who noted empty hog houses have been an ominous sign for Sampson. “As far as building the school at this point in time, I sat here probably a few months ago and said I was in favor of Charles E. Perry. And, yes, I’m in favor of Charles E. Perry, but am I in favor of it now or not? This is not a good time to build, and that’s my belief.”
County manager Rick Moorefield said that USDA area director Ed Causey reassured him money would still be available down the line, whether the loans were obligated or de-obligated, but that decision had to be made so money wasn’t tied up in a tabled project.
“His position is that these loan commitments are five years old and he wants a decision to be made, he wants a real date,” Moorefield said. “He feels like USDA has been very flexible and generous, and I would agree. He doesn’t think you’ll go with it and start digging tonight, but wants to have some date. The expectation is that when the money is put out on these obligations, it will be used. Frankly, four or five years is a long time for federal money to be alive on a project without some sort of working being done.”
A $5 million loan for the Childhood Development project was approved in April 2005, with the obligation to be held until November 2009 following last October’s delay. USDA approved a $7 million loan for a projected $12 million cost for a new Charles E. Perry in September 2005. With recent stimulus funding, Causey noted it was “quite possible” that USDA could provide the difference.
Commissioner Jefferson Strickland said Causey’s correspondence noted first payments on the loans would not be due until 2012, perhaps 2013. County finance officer David Clack said it would be 2013 before the county would begin to make payments on the loan — payments of $660,000 annually for the estimated $12.4 million project.
“This would give us time to make our adjustments and, at the same time, would give a chance for the revenue streams to be back up somewhat where they were,” said Strickland. “We have made some pretty good decisions the last three years, in that there’s only been one tax increase. There’s no reason we can’t continue to make government more efficient. These decisions should be based on a need. If there is a need, we ought to think about it.”
Need is the key word, Lockamy said.
“It’s gotten down to the point, do we want to build it or do we need to build it?” Lockamy rhetorically stated. “Yes we want to build it, but do we really need to build it? And put or citizens and our taxpayers in jeopardy of raising taxes.”
Board chairman Jarvis McLamb said he leaned toward Lockamy’s mindset.
“I was for Charles E. Perry,” said McLamb. “It might be flip-flopping, I reckon that’s what I’ve done. I was asked the question the other day, ‘Would you raise taxes just to do something for the Lakewood district?’ Now, it’s not a safety issue at Charles E. Perry, it’s ‘let’s do something for the Lakewood district.’”
McLamb’s raised his voice when talking about how the issue has developed, with now-ardent supporters of Charles E. Perry making their own voices louder — after putting the school at the bottom of the “needs” list not long ago.
“What happened here was that the Board of Commissioners decided to start building schools, all I heard was talk that Charles E. Perry was sinking, we need some funds to build a new Charles E. Perry,” the chairman said. “As soon as we started getting the funds together, the school board came to the conclusion it was a safety hazard over there.”
Instead of going forward with C.E. Perry, however, the school board decided to build new Union and Midway high schools, said McLamb, who attested both also needed building.
“It was the school board that changed the decision to move Charles E. Perry to the bottom, back to the rear,” said Commissioner John Blanton. “I don’t know the reason for this, but we are not reading off the same sheet of music for some reason. What I’m hearing is ‘let’s put Charles E. Perry off the agenda.’ That’s what I’m hearing. Is that what we’re saying?”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” said Lockamy. “I’m saying it’s not the time to do it right now.”
“When is the time to do it?” Blanton asked.
“I don’t know, it’s not now,” Lockamy responded.
Moorefield said the county has previously advanced $500,000 for architect fees at C.E. Perry. School officials said it would cost $35,000 to finish the design plans.
“I realize this is a complicated situation we’re in, very complicated,” said Blanton. “The college wants one thing, the schools want another thing. You can’t satisfy them both. We have to look at the fact that we claimed that this was the worst situation we had in our county, yet there’s nothing to be done about it. Somewhere, we need to reassess what we’re doing.”
Waiting was the best bet, McLamb said. A vote to move ahead on school projects now would mean a sure tax increase, he attested.
“I think we should wait a while until it gets better,” said McLamb. “If this board votes to move ahead with funding these schools now, Charles E. Perry and the college, they vote to raise taxes next year. That’s my opinion.”
When Strickland again mentioned a financing plan of down-the-line payments beginning no sooner than 2013, McLamb talked him down.
“We can’t wait until 2013 to start getting ready,” the chairman said. “I’m not up here to try and change anybody’s mind. I’m just telling you how I feel. You can call me a sorry farmer or anything you want to. I’m not up here to try and change anybody’s mind. I’m just telling you what I feel.”
Strickland made a motion that the board make it intentions known to USDA that it wants to go forward with construction of C.E. Perry, with construction to begin no sooner than fall of 2010. Blanton seconded. Strickland, Blanton and commissioner Malachi Faison voted in favor of moving forward. Lockamy and McLamb voted against.
Following the C.E. Perry discussion, discourse on the college’s Childhood Development Center was short.
The USDA loan is currently for a freestanding structure, with a possible acquisition of Clinton Pentecostal Holiness Church added to the mix in the last couple months, said Moorefield, who said Causey could modify the project loan accordingly.
An independent appraisal for the church was conducted, with SCC officials also expressing their wish to conduct their own appraisal, money for which was not granted by the county board. However, the board’s chairman said Monday the cost to purchase the church would be high.
“The word I get is it’s going to be a pretty high figure, and I don’t think the church is ready to give a figure yet,” said McLamb. “My recommendation is to not do anything, but to let Mr. Causey de-obligate that portion of these funds.”
“Times are too tight,” Lockamy reiterated. “Now is not the time to be spending money. As far as building, as far as loan obligations — I’m not saying when — but now is not the time.”
“I agree completely with you, Mr. Lockamy,” McLamb stated.
After just a few moments of discussion, Lockamy made a motion to not go forward with the facility and to authorize Causey to de-obligate the loan, with a note that the issue would be re-visited next year. The vote was unanimous.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137, ext. 121, or by email at email@example.com.