Orange commissioners could ask taxpayers for millions for schools

tgrubb@newsobserver.comSeptember 29, 2013 

  • What’s next?

    The Orange County Board of Commissioners could talk more about a possible 2014 bond referendum at their Oct. 8 work session. The meeting starts at 7 p.m. in the Link Government Service Center, 120 N. Cameron St., Hillsborough.

— Orange County commissioners could ask voters next year for nearly $100 million in new debt for a new Chapel Hill-Carrboro middle school and a county jail, but it won’t address all the local school repair and renovation needs.

The new middle school could cost $43 million, with construction starting in 2017 or 2018. The proposed $30 million jail would be built in the next five years as a condition of the state’s land-lease agreement.

City school officials estimated deferred maintenance and age-related issues in 10 of their oldest buildings could cost another $52 million to $170 million. Most newer city schools, such as Rashkis and McDougle, are roughly 20 years old and soon will need new roofs, heating, air and ventilation systems, handicapped access, and electrical and plumbing systems, said Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent for support services.

The county has similar needs, but officials won’t have a complete list until early next year. In addition, a new elementary school could be needed by 2020. Based on the age of county buildings and the city schools report, the county could be looking at $20 million to $68 million or more, officials said.

The Orange County Board of Commissioners met Thursday with the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City and the Orange County school boards to map needs for the next 20 years. The goal is to bring older schools up to modern standards and address safety issues that have become more pressing since the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, officials said.

“We wanted to get our arms around the size of what it was we were confronting and when we would have to make a decision about when to fund the most pressing items,” Commissioners Chairman Barry Jacobs said.

State and federal cuts to school spending also are forcing local systems to find money or do without, officials said.

“We have to have a different communication with the citizens,” said Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Vice Chairwoman Jamezetta Bedford. “We cannot even afford this. We don’t have enough money to do this. The idea that we want new things and we want this new park or whatever – when we can’t afford to maintain what we already have – is very worrisome.”

Bond referendum

The commissioners would have to hold a public hearing and agree to a bond referendum by June 2014 to get it on the November 2014 ballot. Orange County voters last approved a $47 million schools bond in 2001.

County Chief Financial Officer Clarence Grier said the county’s current debt is $190 million, which means new debt – outside of a voter-approved referendum – won’t be possible until roughly 2023.

City schools Superintendent Tom Forcella said the system has been able to keep its teachers assistants and most programs, but there are still some hard times ahead. LoFrese said the city schools will face a $2.2 million shortfall going into next year’s budget planning.

There is roughly $20 million in the system’s current budget for repair and renovation projects.

‘Each and every option’

County school board Chairwoman Donna Coffey, board member Stephen Halkiotis and others urged the group to think about where they could spend the money to get the most benefits.

“The first reach is real high. Then you realize you can only get certain fruit from the tree. Then you get real practical,” Halkiotis said. “Look at each and every option available to you.”

The commissioners also are planning for a new $30 million, 250-bed county jail on land leased from the state.

The county signed a 50-year lease earlier this year, which started a five-year state clock for finishing the project, officials said.

The 6.8-acre site is located on Old N.C. 86 near Interstate 85 in Hillsborough. Construction could start in 2015 or 2016 with completion by 2018, officials said. Jacobs said it might be easier to pay for the jail through the regular budget rather than asking voters to take on more debt.

The commissioners have not decided how the new jail would look or what would happen to the old jail in downtown Hillsborough. Jacobs said he didn’t think it would close because that would mean the county could never use it again. It could become a holding area for the courts, he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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