November’s County Bond Referendum: $150 Million

$120 million for public schools, $30 million for JCC

Those numbers are less than what was requested by the Johnston County Board of Education and trustees of Johnston Community College, and also less than what the county’s financial advisor said could be handled without negatively impacting the county’s AAA bond rating.

But, in setting those lesser amounts during Monday evening’s meeting, the County Commissioners emphasized that unmet funding needs could be addressed by other means, including Limited Obligation Bond financing for a proposed new Clayton High School and perhaps a direct appropriation for a proposed new campus for the community college at Clayton.

In both of those cases, commissioners said they want more specific plans for those facilities before making funding commitments.

Commissioners were advised they had to make decisions no later than Monday about the upcoming bond-issue amount to get the referendum added to this year’s General Election ballot. The next step is approval of the requested borrowing from the N.C. Local Government Commission.

Johnston’s Board of Education adopted a resolution back in mid-March asking for a $285-million bond issue for “reconstruction” of Clayton High School, “build-outs” at four elementary schools, and renovations at 17 campuses throughout the county.

During Monday’s discussion, Commissioners’ Chairman Butch Lawter suggested removing the Clayton High project – estimated to cost $113 million, he said – from the bond request and reconsidering it next year after plans are drawn to show how the existing campus can be re-configured. Then it could be financed with a Limited Obligation Bond that wouldn’t require county voters’ approval, he said.

The board settled on $120 million for this fall’s referendum on a General Obligation Bond issue by a vote of 6-1. Commissioner Patrick Harris cast the dissenting vote. “We ran models based on $200 million,” he said.

Commissioners made it clear that a priority for spending that $120 million should be elimination of mobile classrooms. Chairman Lawter said Johnston’s schools currently have 187 such units, 126 are to be eliminated as a result of proposed construction and renovation projects along with changes in attendance districts.

Trustees of the community college, meanwhile, had requested an $85-million bond issue to construct a “medical campus facility” at Clayton and to upgrade Public Safety training facilities at JCC’s Smithfield campus. Again, Commissioners’ Chairman Lawter suggested taking the Clayton facility “off the table” until a site could be identified and building plans drawn. The board could then consider “alternate funding” outside a bond issue for that project, he said.

The board unanimously approved the reduced amount for the college’s share of the proposed bond issue, even though Commissioners Harris and Bill Stovall voiced support for a higher amount. Mr. Harris said “$30 million won’t do it.” Added Mr. Stovall: “I question if $30 million is enough.”

Facilities for Public Safety training at JCC “ought to be the primary focus” in putting that bond money to use, Chairman Lawter concluded.

County staff asked to figure on a two-cent tax reduction…

Following the bond discussion, Chairman Lawter asked for suggestions regarding County Manager Rick Hester’s proposed budget for 2024-25. Commissioner Fred Smith got the ball rolling by asking for a two-cent cut in the county’s property-tax rate, which is now 69 cents per $100 valuation.

“Last year we reduced it four cents… and it was not a problem,” said Mr. Smith. “We ended up with more revenue this year than we had last year, and we went from a 65% fund balance to a 71% fund balance.” He said a two-cent tax cut would reduce projected revenue about $6 million.  Chairman Lawter said that amount “should be of minimal impact to our budget.”

Mr. Smith said a two-cent cut would offset a two-cent increase in what many of Johnston’s rural residents will be paying under the new countywide fire-tax plan.

Mr. Hester said he would re-figure his proposed budget accordingly.

…and $8 million for new building at Neuse Charter School

Commissioner Smith went to bat for funding Neuse Charter School’s request for $8 million from the county to help pay for a second multi-story classroom building at the school’s Smithfield campus. (Contributions of local tax dollars for construction at charter schools are now permitted as a result of recent changes in state law.)

Mr. Smith said schools like Neuse Charter are “more efficient” with their operations, and that “leaves more money available” to support traditional public schools.

None of the commissioners objected to adding the $8 million to the new budget.

Public hearing on county budget draws minimal interest

The required hearing was conducted during the commissioners’ Monday morning session with only three persons representing organizations addressing the board about particulars in the county manager’s proposed budget:

• Josh Jensen, executive director of Community & Senior Services, said the manager’s proposal falls $275,000 short of funding a second year for the JCATS QuickRide service in the Smithfield-Selma area. Mr. Hester said that was an oversight that will be corrected. “We fully support that,” he told Mr. Jensen.

• Ranger Mike Winslow of the N.C. Forest Service’s Johnston County office asked commissioners for a $9,788 increase in county support for his agency – from $163,604 this year to $173,397 in the year ahead. The state provided $245,407 for Johnston’s operation this year, with an expected increase in 2024-25, Mr. Winslow noted. Mr. Hester’s proposed budget leaves the county’s appropriation unchanged.

• Michael Grannis of the Clayton Civitan Club asked for a $150,000 county contribution to help pay for new lighting systems at the club’s five fields used for youth sports. Mr. Hester’s proposal includes an appropriation of $75,000 for that.

And while they chose to speak during Public Comment portions at both of Monday’s sessions rather than during the budget hearing, several citizens associated with Down Home N.C. – which lobbies for “poor and working-class people in small towns and rural communities”  –  asked commissioners to fund an “energy navigator” in the new year’s budget to seek federal grants to help households afford rising costs for electricity and natural gas.

The big question that remains unanswered as the commissioners move toward adoption of the coming year’s budget is how much will be appropriated for Johnston County’s public schools. The Board of Education has requested $111.8 million for operations and $28.8 million for capital outlay. Mr. Hester’s proposed budget includes $93.3 million for operations and $3 million for capital projects.

No one stood before the board to address school funding during Monday’s hearing.

Commissioners have scheduled a special budget session at 6 p.m. Monday with a stated goal of adopting the 2024-25 budget at their June 17 regular meeting.

VIEW details of Mr. Hester’s proposed budget posted on the county’s website

Commissioner Godwin objects to price of land purchase

As he did regarding a previous purchase there, Ted Godwin objected to Monday’s action by the board to exercise an option to buy 86.27 acres adjacent to the new Detention and Public Safety centers east of Smithfield at a price of $81,000 an acre.

“I think we could have gotten it a lot cheaper,” insisted Mr. Godwin, who noted that the county had purchased 24 acres in the vicinity for $21,000 in 2018 yet $81,000 an acre for a 5.5-acre tract nearby in 2022. “That changed the entire dynamic of the real-estate market on the eastern side of town,” he said.

Although he voted in favor of the latest purchase, Commissioner Bill Stovall said he agreed “in principle” with Mr. Godwin’s comments, adding that the “we need to have a little more diligence in the future when we start negotiating.”

The county for several years has been purchasing acreage near the intersection of US 70 Business and Yelverton Grove Road as the potential site of a future administrative campus for County Government.

-The Smithfield Weekly Sun

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