Camden residents mixed on gov't center
By Chris Day
Saturday, July 15, 2017
CAMDEN — More than 40 Camden residents attending a public hearing this week had mixed views on the county’s proposal to build a new administration center.
While some residents at Tuesday’s meeting at Camden County High School said they didn’t want county tax dollars being spent on the proposed $5 million structure, others expressed support for the project, particularly the fact it’s slated to contain a community center.
The county wants to build the new administration center on property off N.C. Highway 343 directly across from the county’s current courthouse complex. The county would use revenue from its land transfer tax to repay the money borrowed to build the center, county officials have said.
Current plans for the center include spaces for new administrative offices, a community center, and room for the tax office, N.C. Cooperative Extension and other uses. Representatives from VIA Design Architects PC in Norfolk presented residents a slideshow of how they envision the new center.
The purpose for Tuesday’s meeting was seek feedback from Camden residents about the proposed administration building. Residents were divided into groups, given small chalk boards and asked to write down their thoughts and ideas for the new center. Some of the comments were critical of the center, while many others supported it.
"Money better spent on overcrowded schools and kids sports recreation centers," one resident wrote in opposing the center.
"We want a sports complex and more money for schools, more classrooms (not in trailers)," read another resident’s statement.
One chalkboard was filled with comments supporting the need for a new library building. "A space for lifelong learning," one commenter said, referring to a new library.
Another group was supportive of the community center but suggested several items they'd like to see incorporated in the new building: a senior center, for example.
"Senior center needs to be included (seniors will outnumber students)," that group's chalkboard read.
Attending Tuesday's meeting were four of the county’s five commissioners. Commissioner Gary Meiggs was unable to attend. Also attending was interim County Manager Stephanie Humphries, who spent nearly 30 minutes answering questions about the proposed government center from the audience.
Humphries explained the history of the idea for the county administration building, saying it dates back 10 or 12 years. The county purchased the 7 acres of land where the center would be built several years ago, she said.
Humphries, who also is the county finance officer, was involved in the early planning for the new center. From a financial point of view, she was concerned how the new center could best serve residents without asking them to shoulder the cost.
"My number one concern was, ‘What can we provide without raising taxes?'" she said. "That was my mantra from day one. What can we provide to solve this issue (of building a new administrative center) without raising taxes?"
After evaluating the needs of the county and what it could afford Humphries said she came up with a plan. The county could borrow $5 million and repay it using revenue from land transfer tax fees.
"We can use land transfer tax (revenue) that has to be earmarked for county capital projects, to pay for this building," she said. "That means that money we're going to use to pay back this $5 million (for the administrative building) cannot be used to send to the school system, it cannot be used to build a school."
Anticipating a possible response from members of the audience, Humphries rolled right into the next topic: commissioners recent decision to increase the county’s property tax rate by 3 cents.
"I know one thing that is going to be said, 'We just had a 3-cent tax increase,'" she said, before explaining why that increase was necessary. "We had no funds to give that extra $600,000 to the school system that we've given the past two years without that 3-cent tax increase."
Many residents at Tuesday's hearing said the county needs a new high school and sports complex more than an administrative building.
"We just don't have the money to build a school right now, to make that happen," Humphries replied.
She said a new high school would cost around $40 million, and to generate the funds for that, the county would have to raise the property tax rate significantly.
"For a $40 million high school, which is the estimate that's been floating around, we would be looking at a 23-cent tax (rate) increase," she said.
Many residents are concerned that the county's need for a new high school is taking a back seat to the new administration building. County officials say that’s not so.
Clayton Riggs, chairman of the board of commissioners, previously said that financing the new administrative center would not affect funding for a new school. Funding for the center would be separate from any new school funding, he said in April, during what was also a public hearing held to discuss the new administration building.
On Thursday, Riggs addressed the issue again in a response to a parent who had emailed the county concerned about the future of the new school.
"School funding is separate from this project's funding stream," Riggs said in the statement provided by the county. "We are still working a $15 million state grant to help fund the school."
Riggs said the argument over whether the county is going to build a new school is "unnecessary." That's because plans for the school have begun and the land to build it has been purchased, he said. He reiterated Humphries' earlier comments about the cost to residents for building a new school.
"The current planning of the new school includes finding ways to avoid a 23-cent tax increase to our citizens for construction of the building," Riggs states. "A few years ago we gave the people a large tax cut. At one point taxpayers were paying 10 cents extra just to fund the new additions to the current high school."
Another citizen argument against building the new administration center is that there is nothing wrong with the older buildings behind the Historic Courthouse. Current plans calls for the sheriff's department to spread out to some of those offices once they are vacated.
Commissioner Randy Krainiak has been outspoken in his support of repurposing those buildings.
"When they say old and failing buildings, I'm old and failing but I'm not giving up," Krainiak said. "That building, the only thing that's falling down is the wall paper. ... It doesn't need to be torn down."