Monday, February 16, 2009

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High Rock Lake Expansion of Schools and other

A new jail, middle school and high school, together estimated to cost at least $100 million, are necessities the county will need to begin over the next five years, but county commissioners also have an opportunity to expand recreational land for county residents during that time.

Those were some of the main ideas discussed by members of the Davidson County Board of Commissioners at their retreat on Thursday at the Davidson County Economic Development Commission’s office.

In the short term, the county’s jail population spikes up and drops down every day, but over the last couple of years, it has leveled off to about 300 inmates. Yet, the county has its most pressing space needs in the county jail and sheriff’s office. And the commissioners still need to build a high school and middle school in the northern part of the county to ease the crowding at North Davidson High School.

Assistant County Manager Zeb Hanner said the county has about $7 million in its capital reserve fund available for different building projects or large purchases. A capital project summary provided to commissioners by Hanner showed the county has $52 million in capital project costs this year. That includes several sewer projects to schools, which will be financed, and 2005 school construction bond money used to build or plan for the building of several new schools or additions.

Another document prepared by Hanner showed the county’s capital improvement project costs topping $177 million through the 2013-2014 fiscal year.

Commissioners delayed any discussion of funding these large projects and said they could be put off further because of the county’s economic situation over the next few years. However, due to the competitiveness in the economy, the county may be able to save money on several smaller projects, such as a new Emergency Medical Services base in the Arcadia area, improvements to the Old Davidson County Court House and a much-needed addition to the Davidson County Senior Center.

Charles Anderson, executive director of Pilot View Inc. (Resource Conservation and Development), spoke with the county board about getting the county government involved in land and water conservation projects. The nonprofit organization helps secure grants and funding for ecological projects in Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Stokes, Surry and Yadkin counties. Anderson said he would like to focus on stabilizing and improving streams, creeks and lakes in the Yadkin River basin within the county.

Anderson said he has helped to secure millions of dollars in creek cleanup, boardwalk and greenway construction and wetland protection funds in other counties and would like to see the county participate in future projects. Anderson said local government participation, usually about 5 percent of a potential grant amount, gives much-needed points when organizations make decisions to award grants. And he can leverage winning grant bids to go after more grant funds through state organizations to turn small projects into big plans.

Commissioner Dr. Max Walser also tickled his peers’ ears with another potential recreational project. As part of Alcoa’s relicensing settlement agreement, provided it is approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the corporation plans on selling a large portion of its land around High Rock Lake to the N.C. Wildlife Commission.

Walser said he’s been told a few parts of that land, which the state will likely turn into game land — including a 169-acre tract on Tuckertown Reservoir in the southern part of the county and additional land totaling more than 200 acres — may become available for the county’s purchase and possibly for a steal, about $300 an acre.

That potential land is just north of Newsome Road along the Tuckertown shore, close to the county’s border with Montgomery County, and it used to be the site of a quarry. Walser said he would set up a time to bring commissioners to tour the property to see if they would be interested in buying it. Walser said there is some private property next to the park which may also be coming up for sale soon, too.

“I’m not here to push it, just to bring it to your attention,” Walser said.

County Planning Director Guy Cornman envisioned the land could be used for hiking and primitive camping.

The county may also consider grounds and lighting improvements to Southmont and Optimist parks over the next several years.

In other news, commissioners:

• Decided against videotaping and broadcasting their regular meetings for now.

• Discussed changing the retirement benefits of new hires. Retired county employees now receive full or partial health insurance coverage depending on their years of employment with the county until they turn 65. But many employers are removing that benefit for new employees because of increased costs. The county pays about $125,000 a year for the health insurance of these retired workers.

• Discussed their continued funding of the Davidson Vision organization but took no action. Commissioners give $100,000 to the group each year but are considering limiting or ending their support of the group.

• On recommendation from County Manager Robert Hyatt, may institute a new sponsorship policy for departments that partner with private and nonprofit organizations for different events or campaigns.

• Decided against re-opening the bait shop at Lake Thom-A-Lex for now.

• By request of Commissioner Billy Joe Kepley, discussed ways the county could support small businesses that may not come to the county for an incentive package like larger corporations. Kepley said he would like to find ways to put custom-made furniture workers back to work in some sort of county-owned facility. Commissioners also discussed giving incentives to retailers but said that would be a risky idea.

• Talked about putting a quarter-cent sales tax referendum on the ballot to pay for specific projects but said now was not the right time for that effort. Hyatt said the state will not let counties tie sales tax increases to certain funds now unless the law changes.

• Discussed the effect that cross-county annexation, both voluntary and involuntary, may have on the county and how the county could protect itself from neighboring municipalities, possibly through legislation or strict zoning ordinances.

• Heard a report from Commissioner Don Truell, who serves as the board’s liaison to the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation. Truell said the county may be asked to allow PART to institute a $5 tag fee for motor vehicle licenses soon because the public transit organization is “going to go in the red this year and run out of money in 2012.” Truell said the county’s current rental car tax may not cover the county’s share of the regional transportation provider.

• Received an update on the former Duracell property that the county is considering for a new jail. County Purchasing Director Dwayne Childress said recent research into the property shows there was contamination in the groundwater on a part of the property north of the possible jail site. However, the county could purchase the site, deed out the contaminated area, and negotiate a clean-up with the property’s owner, The Gillette Co.

• Heard an update on the county’s land use plan. The amendments to the plan will likely be available for commissioners’ approval in April.

Commissioners next meet for their regular meeting on Feb. 24 on the fourth floor of the Davidson County Governmental Center.