By Tim Gardner
Increased cost estimates for renovations and new construction at Avery County High School has created doubts about whether the project will proceed in the near future.
During a recent joint meeting of the Avery County Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education, it was revealed that the estimated cost of the project has increased by a hefty $4 million from approximately $19 million to an estimated amount of around $23 million.
The project, which the commissioners first started considering in 2018, was later approved to proceed with a bid. The county’s $1.7 million in North Carolina Education Lottery funds was earmarked to fund its first stages.
The updated costs presented to both boards at the meeting by Architect Rob Johnson of Boomerang Design, of Charlotte, NC, included various project revisions as well as new equipment that would be necessary for the school, some of which created the increase in cost estimate.
Johnson said that the cost of projects is generally marketplace driven.
Although the issue of the expanding estimate was the primary topic of discussion at the meeting, the commissioners took no action about funding the project. They have expressed strong concerns about the increase in the estimated price.
Estimates do not represent the real cost of a project, as a project has to be subject to bids from contractors for a more realistic determination of what the project may ultimately cost. The original motion specifically included an amount “not to exceed $19.5 million,” though it was agreed that the project could proceed to bid.
However, it should be noted that the commissioners are under no legal obligation to award any bids.
The high school, which opened in 1968, has had various classroom and other facility maintenance problems for years. And costs are likely to become more expensive to renovate and construct new additions.
The estimate when the project was first shown to the commissioners included a cost increase of approximately $800,000 annually.
Avery Schools Superintendent Bryan Taylor said the renovations and new construction project had been engineered down to the base necessities at the school.
“We have spent so much time and energy on this project, that it’s time for us to decide,” Board of Education Chairperson John Greene said about a possible delay in the project. “Are we going to be the ones who step up, or do we want to pass it on to the next ones who will take our place?”
Greene said he believes that members of both boards want the project to proceed and continuing to delay it would make it even more costly to the county’s taxpayers.
Building an entirely new high school would cost several times what the renovations and additions in this project would cost.
Board of Commissioners Chairperson Martha Hicks said the county’s current difficulty in securing funding for the project has been even worse because of the recent, partial United States Government shutdown that lasted for 35 days and is the longest in America history. That shutdown stopped all progress toward the county’s work to secure a low-interest loan from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
However, a deal between U.S. President Donald Trump and other top government officials to end the shutdown is only temporary. It extends funding for the government at current levels until February 15 and includes a “vehicle” for lawmakers to begin discussions between the two congressional chambers– the Congress and Senate– over a larger bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security and border security specifically.
Trump has pushed for building a wall along sections of the border between the United States and Mexico. He finally agreed January 25th to fund the government without money for his border wall. But he added that if money for “a powerful wall or steel barrier” was not included in a deal in three weeks, he would shut down the government again or use emergency powers to build the wall himself—a threat he had issued several times already. Some legal experts have questioned his legal authority to use his emergency powers to build the wall and the issue could ultimately have to be determined by the courts.
Hicks noted that another government shutdown could further delay attempts to secure a USDA loan.
Barrier, Jr. said county officials are still considering using private lenders to fund the Avery High renovations and construction additions. The USDA issues some loans itself and guarantees USDA loans offered through some private lenders.
Hicks added that the commissioners will be discussing the increased project funding in much more detail at their next few meetings.