Editor’s note: the following guest column was written by Mike Hawkins, former chairman of the Transylvania County Board of Commissioners.
In my years working with former Transylvania County Manager Artie Wilson our county faced many challenges, many of which were unanticipated and many which seemed unsolvable. That’s the nature of local governing; no matter how well you plan there are curve balls thrown, made more challenging by small communities’ lack of resources.
One of Artie’s greatest strengths is his resilience in the face of adversity, and he has a mantra I heard many times. He would look at the challenge as an opportunity.
“Everything’s an opportunity,” he would say.
I have never forgotten that. And I have thought of Artie often as the struggle to implement the 2018 school bond has proceeded. One can’t help wondering, what is the opportunity in this challenge? The broad facts of the situation are familiar: county voters overwhelmingly approved a $68 million bond package to fund a plan to comprehensively repurpose Brevard High and Rosman High/Middle into 21st-century facilities. Importantly – and pay attention, this will come up later – the bond addressed only BHS and RHS; Transylvania County Schools also identified $25+ million additional needed for the seven other county schools.
These additional needs were purposefully left out of the bond referendum, as it was thought a $90+ million bond would be difficult for county voters to approve. But the Board of Education and Board of County Commissioners were aware of these additional needs, which continue to exist. After voters committed to the $68 million liability the BOCC immediately increased property tax to cover the estimated costs plus financing. This revenue – something above $6 million annually - is in a designated reserve account, growing each tax season. Architectural planning for the bond project took time and initial cost estimates were over budget by some $20 million. Faced with a cost dilemma not of their making, the BOE asked for scaled-back plans and are now resolved to move a BHS/RHS project which is a shell of the plan voters approved. It is, everyone agrees, not ideal. But based on a $68 million hard cap the BOE action is sensible; indeed, it is the only action available if the goal is to touch both BHS and RHS, as the bond promised.
But remember Artie’s mantra. In this situation, what would the opportunity be? It might be that the cost overrun estimates and resulting project delay have opened all sorts of interesting possibilities. Let’s take an inventory:
We know that the total physical capital needs of county schools were estimated at $90+ million in 2018 and are certainly higher now. We know that Blue Ridge Community College has proposed $35 million in capital needs to enable BRCC to provide its essential educational services over the next 30 years. We know we have vital pre-K shortcomings which affect everything from economic development to social services to public health, yet to which we commit next to nothing in capital and other support.
On the other hand: We know that the county and school system combined have received nearly $10 million in federal ARPA revenue; and as we all know, money is a fungible resource. We know that the $68 million bond has already been paid for, at least in the sense of property tax increases.
We know that local governments are awash in post-pandemic grant opportunities; so much so that in some cases getting the funding isn’t the problem, administering it is.
And we know that the 2018 Bond reserve account has been growing annually, buying down the cost of that project. Given all this, perhaps we are asking the wrong questions about the current situation. Focusing on architectural fees – important as it is – might be distracting us from the bigger picture. Perhaps also we shouldn’t be talking about “schools” and “Blue Ridge” and “preschool.” Perhaps we should be talking about “education” instead.
Stop. Take a breath. Bring everyone together and develop an overall education capital plan with an overall education funding plan. In so doing, plan for what you truly need. Understand that the total costs will be north of $125 million – but also understand the favorable revenue factors detailed above, none of which existed in 2018.
BRCC in particular has been a proponent of this approach for some time, and the time is ripe to make it happen. If not now, when? Would this involve additional tax burden for our citizens? Yes. But these are not needs we can simply wish away; they must be done, and delays in addressing them simply increase ultimate costs. In 2020 I was very direct about saying Transylvania County property taxes would need to increase 10 cents over the next 5 years to deal with the real issues facing our county. We see proof of that here – except ARPA money and grant opportunities have reduced local taxpayer burden.
So the table is set so that it’s easy to see how this could happen. And it would be a farsighted action that our grandchildren’s grandchildren would thank us for. They deserve nothing less.
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