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Avery Commissioners and School Board Conduct Joint Meeting to Discuss High School Construction and Renovation Project

By Tim Gardner

The Avery County Boards of Commissioners and Education conducted a joint meeting at the latter’s central offices on April 4 to discuss the proposed construction and renovation project at Avery County High School, as well as its bids that were originally scheduled to be opened that day.

However, bid opening was cancelled and rescheduled for Tuesday, April 16. Schools Superintendent Bryan Taylor said the bid opening postponement was to provide needed time for the contractors bidding on the project to get estimates from additional subcontractors.

The project’s estimated cost has risen from $19.1 million to $23 million. Part of the estimate increase has been attributed to the need to replace equipment at the school, which includes $20,000 for a new boiler.

Among the issues that have been raised regarding the project includes concerns about the potential of bids on the project to further exceed their current estimate and how higher costs would be addressed and paid.

Bids are not legally binding and when they are opened, there is no legal obligation to accept any.

Taylor declared that he and architect Rob Johnson of Boomerang Design of Charlotte, NC, architects for the project, have been working “feverishly on contingency plans if the bids come in much higher than the estimate.”

The project was originally scheduled to proceed to bid after a vote by the Board of Commissioners during their May 7, 2018 regular monthly meeting. A specific reference was made then to a motion for an amount not to exceed $19.5 million compared to the initial estimate of $19.1 million after county attorney Michaelle Poore said that a particular dollar value should be provided with the motion.

Commissioner Wood Hall (Woodie) Young, Jr. said the extra $400,000 included in his motion is for monetary leverage.

The commissioners permitted the project to proceed to bid and use $1.7 million in education lottery funds to pay for its initial phases.

The project is a tremendous long-term financial commitment for the county, which had a most-recently approved budget of $29.6 million. The commissioners have expressed concerns that the high school, as well as the school system’s other facilities, would require more projects in the near future and further stretch the county financially to pay for them as well as potentially even more higher costs for the current high school project.

The project’s cost is anticipated to increase approximately $800,000 each year.

The county has been seeking various public and private lenders to complete it.

The county and school system jointly applied for grant monies through the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund program, but that application was rejected. Had it been approved, the fund could have provided the county with up to $10 million for capital projects. That amount is more than half of the original estimated $19.5 million total cost for the pending high school construction and renovation project. However, the county was not guaranteed to receive that amount of funding, and is not promised any other funding.

Matching grants involve receiving the same amount of money spent, usually on types of purchases specified in the grant, and within a certain time frame.

The program did have a clause: If the county received grant funding, it would have had to forfeit lottery funds for five years. However, Avery County Manager Phillip Barrier, Jr. said the county usually receives approximately $150,000.00 in lottery funding each year, meaning the County could have received much larger amounts from the Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund.

The grant would have been a matching grant one that is usually extended only to Tier 1 (most financially strained) counties. The majority of the funds were given to Tier 1 counties and Avery is designated as a Tier 2 county.

Also, a local sales and use tax at the rate of one-quarter percent (0.25%) in addition to all other State and local sales and use taxes was voted down by a resounding margin of 3,970 to 2,166 by Avery voters in last November’s General Election.

If the county’s voters had approved adding the sales tax, an extra 25 cents for every one hundred dollars ($100.00) spent would have been created, which could have amounted to as much as $690,000.00 annually. The sales tax money would have been placed in the county’s General Fund and could have been spent on capital projects such as for school construction and renovations.

Taylor said the high school project will have “an absolute minimum” of what is needed. It includes utility improvements, renovated space, Americans with Disabilities Act compliance and new classroom space with science classrooms.