Friday, February 23, 2024

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County commissioner Bill Lashley continues to decry school system’s approach to maintenance

A proposed update of the county’s capital improvement plan gave one member of Alamance County’s governing board a chance to revisit a public dustup that he recently had with a school board member over the local school system’s maintenance policies.

Commissioner Bill Lashley ultimately dredged up this week-old quarrel with school board member Patsy Simpson on Monday when Alamance County’s manager Heidi York unveiled some suggested revisions to a capital improvement plan that her predecessor had crafted for the Alamance-Burlington school system, Alamance Community College, and the county’s own brick-and-mortar facilities.

During the county manager’s pitch, Lashley recalled some of the more pointed criticism that he had leveled at Simpson when the two butted heads at a school board meeting last

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Monday. In particular, he reiterated his dismay that the school system has yet to expend a $500,000 allocation that it has received from the county to install security cameras at five middle schools.

The commissioner went on to denounce the school system for allegedly squandering the $3.3 million a year that the county’s current capital improvement plan sets aside for its routine maintenance needs.

“Why are we going to be so focused on helping them fix their problems when the work doesn’t get done?” he inquired during York’s presentation. “I want to see what did [the schools] do with my $3.3 million that we gave you last year…At what point in time do we as a commissioners’ board ask these hard questions?”

Despite Lashley’s objections, York’s proposed overhaul of the county’s capital improvement plan would continue to allot the school system $3.3 million a year from the communal coffer that former county manager Bryan Hagood had set up to address the capital needs of the county, school system and community college.

County manager Heidi York

York’s recommended plan is nevertheless even more generous with Alamance Community College, whose annual allocation it proposes to raise from $280,000 to $536,000. The county manager said that this increase would cover proposed upgrades and repairs at the community college’s main campus in Graham.

In the meantime, York suggested a nearly eightfold increase in the county’s own allocation, which would jump from $300,000 to $2.3 million under her recommended revisions. The county manager added that this additional revenue would help chip away at the $7 million in deferred maintenance needs for the 40 or so buildings that the county currently owns.

York emphasized that her proposed plan’s immediate recommendations don’t include any of the big-budget capital projects that have recently preoccupied the board of commissioners. These future endeavors include a $3.5 million plan to develop a new EMS substation in Mebane, $15 million to refurbish an old industrial building in Burlington to serve as a new headquarters for the county’s 9-1-1 center, and a $67 million proposal to renovate and expand the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House in Graham.

In order to pay for the last of these proposed ventures, the board of commissioners has been contemplating using some of the county’s own savings in combination with a multimillion-dollar bank loan to cover the difference. Among the proposals that the board has entertained to pay off that loan is a plan that would divert revenue from a capital reserve fund that the county maintains for the school system in order to avoid an increase in property taxes.

During the county manager’s presentation, Steve Carter, the vice chairman of Alamance County’s commissioners, reminded his colleagues that these redirected funds would ultimately come from the excess tax revenue which the commissioners had previously set aside for a $150 bond package that area voters had approved for the school system in 2018.

“If people keep claiming we’re taking away money from ABSS…they’re wrong,” the board’s vice chairman went on to declare.

Lashley, meanwhile, continued to rail at the school system over its allegedly sluggish response to its own routine maintenance needs. The commissioner went so far as to suggest that the county should have line-item control over the school system’s budget in order to force its administrators to expedite their to-do list.

“Going forward, all I’m going to ask from the school system is accountability,” he added. “One thing that I think needs to be changed in order to have a more efficient organization for the school system is being able to have [that] line-item [control]. We give them $50 million, and this board has no say so over it…To make it a more efficient model, maybe we can hold back some of the money for these projects.”

County commissioner Bill Lashley

In response to Lashley’s concerns, commissioner Craig Turner said he would like to see the school system “rack and stack” their most urgent maintenance projects for the county’s edification.

Yet, Lashley’s call for line item control drew a skeptical reply from county attorney Rik Stevens, who pointed out that the state’s general statues don’t allow counties to micromanage the budgets of the school systems they fund.

County commissioner Pam Thompson

Meanwhile, Lashley’s demands of the school system raised the hackles of fellow commissioner Pam Thompson, who had served on the school board before she joined the board of commissioners in 2020. Thompson observed that it had taken the county a while to install cameras at its own human services center, and she urged her colleagues not to be quite so highhanded with the county’s elected school board.

“We have to be careful about getting territorial in telling everybody what to do,” Thompson asserted. “If we start doing that, we won’t get anywhere.”

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