Thursday, June 13, 2024

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County eyes school system’s capital reserves to pay off debt for courthouse expansion

Among the highlights of county’s annual retreat were discussions about two big-ticket endeavors that the county’s administrators have been struggling to fit into the county government’s budget.

Of particular interest was an update on the proposed expansion of the Judge J.B. Allen, Jr. Court House – a project that has emerged as a priority for the county’s board of commissioners despite its projected price tag of up to $75 million.

Last year, the county’s administrators presented the commissioners a plan to renovate the existing, 30-year-old courthouse and add a three- to four-story expansion that, all told, would set the county back somewhere between $65 million and $75 million.

Although a majority of the commissioners seemed to embrace this proposal, they were also a bit wary of the project’s anticipated expense. In light of these misgivings, the county’s administrators suggested some potential transfers from the county’s capital reserves and its general savings that could generate up to $20 million toward the project’s overall cost. These transfers would nevertheless leave another $45 million to $55 million that the county will need to secure through some form of financing.

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During Monday’s retreat, Ted Cole, a consultant with Davenport Public Finance, presented the commissioners with some options to cover the debt payments that they’d most likely incur if they proceed with this project.

Cole began by assuring the commissioners that the county has the debt capacity to borrow the $50 million or so that remains unaccounted for in their plans – or even the full $70 million they’d need to bring their vision for the courthouse to fruition. Cole also conceded that the commissioners could increase the county’s property tax rate to cover the debt payments this loan would necessitate.

The consultant estimated the county’s current tax rate would need to go up by 2.16 to 3.14 cents if the commissioners were to postpone the hike until their initial debt payment is due in 2028. Or, if they elect to raise the rate right away and limit the required increase to between 1.4 and 1.86 cents.

Cole added that the commissioners could also pay off the loan without having to resort to a tax increase if they help themselves to some of the revenue that pours into the local school system’s capital reserves.

The county’s governing board obtained control of these reserves several years ago when a previous county manager convinced the school system and the community college that it would be more cost effective to pool their capital funds. Cole acknowledged that, over the past couple of years, the county has whittled down the school system’s share of these communal reserves to about $4.7 million. He nevertheless predicted that these funds will be rapidly replenished thanks to proceeds from the state lottery, sales tax receipts that are earmarked for the school system’s capital needs, and the county’s own financial contributions.

As a result, Cole said that the commissioners can comfortably draw between $2.4 million and $3.2 million a year from the school system’s reserves, and obviate the need to raise the property tax rate to pay for the courthouse expansion.

“We’re just giving you an alternative to the tax increase for the debt to the courthouse,” the consultant went on to declare, eliciting no comment from any of the commissioners who were at the retreat.

Also on Monday’s agenda was another multi-million-dollar proposal to establish a new headquarters for the county’s 9-1-1 center and its emergency management office.

This particular venture recently leapt to the top of the county’s to-do list after North Carolina’s General Assembly set aside $15 million for its completion in the state’s current budget. Even so, county officials acknowledge that it no longer appears the state’s allocation will suffice to cover this facility’s full cost.

Among the factors complicating this project has been the county’s desire to accommodate the city of Burlington’s emergency dispatchers within the facility. These municipal dispatchers, who also handle emergency communications for the city of Graham, currently operate independently of the county’s 9-1-1 center, which relays all of its Burlington- and Graham-based phone traffic to their base of operations in Burlington.

Sherry Hook, Alamance County’s deputy manager, noted that occasional breakdowns in this relay system have convinced the county’s administrators that the time has come to merge the two operations. So far, the city of Burlington has resisted this marriage of convenience due to the enormous investment it has made into its own dispatch services. Hook added, however, that the proposed new facility could give the city a nudge toward the county’s position by allowing the two independent operations to, at least, coexist under the same roof.

“I don’t think Burlington is ready to consolidate,” she told the commissioners, “But if you’re in the same room together, and there’s [a cross-jurisdictional crisis] growing, you’re at least aware of it.”

Read other stories from Monday’s county commissioners’ retreat:

Tax administrator reveals best guess of “revenue neutral” tax rate after revaluation:

County kicks off budget season with 7-hour day retreat:

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