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Faircloth: Public input needed for school issue

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BY MILES LAYTON
Staff writer

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Chowan County Comission’s meeting agenda contained a long laundry list of items Monday.

Commissioners received an update from the joint school replacement committee, discussed cost-of-living raises sought by the sheriff's office and initiated plans to finance the renovation of the former D.F. Walker School for use by the Boys and Girls Club of the Albemarle. Water infrastructure projects and an important draft of a water discharge permit also was included within the agenda. And the county commissioners learned the difference between seasonal labor and “unauthorized” population as these terms relate to the 2020 census.

School building project

Commissioners provided an update about deadlines and planning associated with the possibility of building a new high school. See a related story about the joint committee on page A1 and read an editorial board opinion about the topic on page A4.

The first public input session on site selection for the new high school will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 17 at the current high school, John A. Holmes. The second will be held at 6 p.m. Sept. 19 at the Northern Chowan Recreation Center. More meetings may be held as the process moves along.

“Public has got to be involved in this,” Commissioner Don Faircloth said. “All in all, it's the public dollars that are paying for this. This is something they have to buy into, understand the importance and ultimately, they have to know what they are getting. We have to listen to what the public wants. We want everyone in Chowan County to be a part of this.”

Commissioner Larry McLaughlin will spearhead an effort to generate an online survey for data and comments that can be used to facilitate decision-making.

“This high school thing is going to generate a lot of excitement — rightly so, and it should be positive excitement,” he said. “People want to be able to participate, and if they can't make it out to one of the meetings, then their input is there. I just think a survey would be another avenue to explore.”

Edenton-Chowan Schools Superintendent Rob Jackson elaborated as to a construction management firm's role in guiding the project. Hired by the school system, a firm is not paid at the outset of any project, but on the back end of the job.

“Part of what they do is guide the process from the very first start in terms of bringing together stakeholders, talking about what size a media center should be, whether there should be career and technical education classrooms, and designs,” he said. “They guide the school system and by extension, the county through the process of construction — a representative to protect the school system and the county.”

Commissioner Bob Kirby cautioned that if a construction management firm is hired at this early juncture in August, “We're going to be casting ourselves into only one possible method of project delivery. There are quite few other methods to do this — hire a construction manager at-risk, as a design-build. There are many innovative ways. ... I'm afraid if we go now by saying we are going to bring a construction management firm in, we are casting ourselves into the classical design-bid-build mode, and that's going to be the only way we are going to be able to proceed. I think that if we do it that way, we're selling ourselves short. I think we need to keep our options open.”

Jackson said a construction management firm actually  is not doing part of the building, but they help guide the project’s conversation from start to finish. He said the joint committee endorsed the idea of hiring a firm, and the school system would be willing to work with the county manager in the selection process for such a firm.

“They are the experts and they help guide through the process even with the very early planning processes and understanding what is possible,” he said. “We wouldn't want to choose a firm that is only limited to one particular way of moving forward with the project.”

Jackson said the board of education and the school system remains focused on the goal – addressing the needs of JAHHS.

“We're most interested in being able to solve this problem that has beset the county for decades at this point in terms of addressing the needs of John A. Holmes High School,” he said. “You're not going to find roadblocks from the Board of Education or the school system. We want to do what it takes to make this project go forward. So if that means adjusting the timeline on the construction management firm, I don't see an issue with that.”

Commission Chairwoman Patti Kersey said, “We want to make sure that we're very careful and consider everything as we're going along.”

Jackson concurred saying, “I absolutely agree. The current high school has been serving the population for 70+ years — a new high school will possibly do that as well. Taking the time to do it right is very important to the Board of Education and me as well.”

Vahalla project 

Commissioners also received an update regarding permitting related to water plant discharge upgrades that will flow into the Chowan River.

Public comment is sought regarding a draft permit that has been issued for a project that would discharge wastewater into the Chowan River. More information about where to submit comments will appear in a future edition. 

“If the public has questions or concerns, they have the ability to see that this draft permit has been issued and to provide their comments to the state (National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System Unit) so that their voice can be heard,” said Greg Churchill, of Rivers and Associates Inc., which is the engineering firm on this project. “I feel like if the NPDES felt like there is sufficient concerns, they might ask to conduct a public hearing, but we don't know that at this point.”

The current proposal — estimated to cost $4.5 million — goes about five miles from the Valhalla Water Treatment Plant’s unlined waste pond on N.C. 32, across the road then down to Rocky Hock Road. It will then take a right and follow Rocky Hock Road to Rocky Hock Creek Road. The pipe will then turn left, following Rocky Hock Creek Road until following Harris Landing Road. From Harris Landing, it will extend about 2,000 feet into the Chowan River, where a 40-foot long, four-valve diffuser apparatus will be located.

Churchill said the 8-inch pipe would be underground and use the roads’ rights-of-way whenever possible.

When asked why the county chose Harris Landing as the discharge site, County Manager Kevin Howard said the site was one of three given to them by a previous engineer, according to a previous story that appeared within the Chowan Herald. The other proposed sites for the diffuser include an area near the US 17 bridge and along Midway Drive, off NC 94, about 8 miles from the Valhalla Water Treatment Plant. But the commissioners decided the other two proposals weren’t economically feasible, Howard said at a forum about the project held in March.

If the Valhalla Water Treatment Plant discharges wastewater at its full capacity — 189,000 gallons per day for the 2 million gallons of portable drinking water it can make — the wastewater, which has sodium ions it, would diffuse into the Chowan River’s water enough to be within state standards at about 6 meters from the valves, according to Groundwater Management Associates Inc., which ran the computer models on the project.

Currently, the plant operates at about a little less than half of its full capacity.

In May, the commission agreed to conduct a feasibility study as to whether there was interest in building a regional water treatment plant. Such a study would delay work on the proposed Valhalla project, but the issue of possibly bringing contaminants to the Chowan River still remains.

“We're moving forward on two fronts – we have to keep moving forward with this permit because we need a solution to our current problem, but the state is going to work with us with this study on a regional solution that might take us somewhere else – we have to do both,” Howard said. “We can't stop the current project. I'm hoping that this will turn into something regional.”

Census matters

James Cofield, a member of the NC Complete Count Commission, provided commissioners with a presentation about the importance of achieving high participation rates for the 2020 census – money allocated by the state and federal governments

“Not to beat a dead horse, but Chowan County is losing population,” Coffield said. “I think you use census information in helping you to make policy decisions – certainly you want to use this information to help you receive additional money be it state funds or federal funds. Most of these funds are based on the census count. It is in your interest to turn out the largest base of residents that you can for Chowan County. It is in the county's economic interest to do so.”

When Kirby studied the data presented, he noted the terms that define people may have had some linguistic massaging to suit the PC police – illegal alien vs. unauthorized population.

“They change the terms — you know global warming is now climate change – making it confusing,” he said. “So, what does the term unauthorized immigrant mean?”

Cofield's presentation reported that North Carolina has 350,000 unauthorized immigrants from various nations, primarily from Central America.

“I don't know, but I can speculate,” Cofield said. “Those are folks who don't have green cards; they are not citizens; they are not in a program to become citizens. And all of us know that those folks are here in North Carolina and Chowan County. I think it was Camden County where they talked about folks who have immigrated from Vietnam. They are largely populated in the fishing industry. So they might well have a high count or a significant count of that population. If you know where those industries are and where those people are in Chowan County – you want to count them.”

Kirby countered, “Really, we want them counted, but we don't want Virginia to count there's – is that right? I'm just saying. Excuse me for being blunt.”

The two men laughed as Coffield said, “You're right. It's all relative.”

Kirby added, “Way way back, they called them illegal aliens. That's the “I” word – nobody likes that. And then it was undocumented aliens and now its called unauthorized population. Is that the Orwellian progression of this?”

Coffield answered, “I think so. And you want to count them.”

Other business

Commissioners approved a request from the sheriff's office to utilize the budgeted 2 percent cost of living adjustment for the career ladder for sheriff employees in the four departments the sheriff manages (Sheriff, 911, SRO and Jail) – but the change will take effect Jan. 1. Long and short of it, sheriff's office wants to make sure a couple of employees, who advance in the pay step structure later this year, receive raises. However, though if they qualify for the raises prior to the effective date of the COLA increase for all other county employees (January 1st) , their pay would not increase until after Jan. 1 – but – they would be paid retroactively from the date the raise went into effect.

Kirby explained the fiscal policy behind the decision to plan pay increases after Jan. 1 – that's when tax revenue – cash flow – starts flowing into the county's coffers.

And, commissioners authorized a resolution to seek financing for $1.65 million in renovations at the former D.F.Walker School on Oakum Street. Receiving a blessing from the state's Local Government Commission is the next step in this venture.

Also, the Senior Center's official grand reopening is poised to take place at a date to be determined in September.

And the commission gave its blessing to Commissioner Ron Cummings to serve as Chowan County's voting delegate at the North Carolina Association County Commissions annual conference later this month.

Also, the commission approved Rivers and Associates for the NC32/NC37 Department of Transportation Project and future Mexico Road DOT project. Commission gave its approval to the NC 37/32 realignment water main project.

And, commissioners approved a proposed settlement with Riversound Property Owners. Folks seeking to build in that development had their tax rates adjusted upward after infrastructure was built, so they sought out more equitable solution to the matters involving assessed values.  

And, Colleen Karl of the Chowan-Edenton Environmental Group, provided the commission an update as to the group's efforts to learn more about the algae problem invading waterways from the Chowan River to the Yeopim River.

Staff writer Miles Layton may be reached at mlayton@ncweeklies.com

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