During the annual state of the county address on Tuesday, Johnston County leadership forecast a bright 2017.
New Board of Commissioners chairman Jeff Carver read a statement touching on the highlights of 2016, with an eye to what lies ahead in the new year. Among the major events on Johnston’s horizon, residents should look for the county to spend money immediately on aging schools while scheduling a bond vote for 2018 for both the public schools and Johnston Community College.
“I believe that 2017 will be a great year for Johnston County, and I hope we can all continue to work together to promote job growth, support our education partners and remain fiscally sound,” Carver read in his statement.
The highs of 2016 included a bond-rating upgrade to Aa1 by Moody’s, the rating agency’s second-highest rating. Carver noted that the county’s bond rating had been upgraded seven times since 1999, and he attributed the latest improvement to the final sale of bonds from the 2013 referendum. The county contends that, over time, the latest rating boost will save Johnston taxpayers millions of dollars in reduced interest rates when the county has to borrow money.
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Carver also noted that the county and school board negotiated room in Johnston’s budget for additional school funding, including $1.9 million for a 1 percent salary supplement increase for teachers.
“We worked closely with the Board of Education to increase funding for teacher supplements, as we are proud of our teachers and thankful for their commitment to education,” Carver said in the statement.
The rapid growth of Johnston’s western end continued last year as the county’s largest employer, Grifols, announced a $210 million expansion that calls for the construction of two new plants in Clayton. That expansion continues a winning streak for the Clayton area, which in 2015 won a historic $1.8 billion expansion by Novo Nordisk. The Danish insulin maker broke ground on its project last spring. Carver said these expansions will play a large role in shaping Johnston’s future.
“We appreciate their commitment to grow in Johnston County and will do everything we can to support their efforts, along with every business in the county,” Carver read.
Despite those expansions, Johnston County won and lost one of the biggest projects in North Carolina last year, one that could prove to be a major player in the way goods are shipped throughout the Southeast. Nearly one year ago, CSX railroad announced that it planned to build a $270 million cargo hub in Selma on land between the company’s north-south line and Interstate 95. The project won praise throughout Eastern North Carolina and in the Governor’s Mansion, but some Johnston property owners made it known they weren’t willing to part with their homes and farms.
Johnston commissioners waffled in their support of the project, at first welcoming the news before eventually asking CSX to look elsewhere. The railroad did look elsewhere, including sites in South Carolina and Virginia, but ultimately kept the project in North Carolina, picking Rocky Mount as its Plan B.
“As mentioned, there were some difficult days in 2016,” Carver said. “The CSX intermodal terminal project was a learning experience for us, and I think we all learned valuable lessons. In the end, CSX will build their intermodal terminal down the road in the Rocky Mount area, and we are thankful that the project remained in North Carolina. This project will greatly benefit our state, and it is our belief that Johnston County will still see positive impacts from this project.”
Carver took time in his remarks to remember the destruction that Hurricane Matthew wrought on Johnston, saying that while Fran and Floyd are burned into the memories of any Johnstonian in the county at the time, Matthew stands out with its element of surprise.
“I don’t believe anyone could have been prepared for Hurricane Matthew and the devastation it brought to our state and county in October of 2016,” Carver said. “So many of our citizens are still dealing with the aftermath of this historic storm, and we continue to pray for the families and businesses that lost everything.”
A short list of needed Johnston County school renovations runs at least $30 million, while satisfying all needs district-wide would reach $100 million. Carver said the board will meet with the school system soon to begin the renovation process but that a bond referendum is coming.
“I would ask that our board commit to discussing and planning for a bond referendum in 2018 for both Johnston County Schools and Johnston Community College,” Carver said.
The county is currently embroiled in another significant capital project, the proposed public safety center on Buffalo Road just outside of Smithfield. A divided board voted 4-3 to move on land near the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center for its new jail. The new chairman acknowledged the split vote paints the board as sown with discord, but he assured citizens that all board members aim to do what’s best for the county.
“I am sure the recent split votes on certain decisions by this board have been noticed, but I want everyone to know that we remain united in doing our part to make Johnston County better than it already is,” Carver said. “We have many great opportunities ahead of us in 2017 and beyond for Johnston County.”