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Mecklenburg supervisors okay borrowing as school site choice looms / September 13, 2017

The Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors took the next step toward financing upgrades for Mecklenburg County school facilities by passing a resolution Monday night to authorize the borrowing of up to $50 million for construction costs.

By borrowing a share of the needed money at current low rates, the county can create a hedge against future interest rate hikes, said County Administrator Wayne Carter. The exact cost of new construction or building renovations won’t be known until bids are opened.

Supervisors agreed to begin the borrowing process even though they and members of the School Board have yet to agree on a site for a consolidated high and middle school complex. A meeting of the joint education committee — comprised of supervisors and school trustees — is currently set for tonight.

Joint education committee members will review for the first time site recommendations from an engineering firm hired by the county to evaluate possible locations for the consolidated school.

They could reach agreement on a new school site at that meeting, although such action is not expected. It will be up to both the Board of Supervisors and School Board to agree on a site for the central school complex for students in grades six-12.

The parties have until Oct. 2 to reach agreement on the location of the new school in order to participate in the next round of borrowing through the Virginia Public School Authority.

Supervisors previously signaled their intention to move forward with an alternate project — renovations to the county’s four elementary schools, at a cost of $30 million — should they and school trustees fail to reach consensus on a site for the consolidated high school-middle school. Construction of the new complex might then be put on hold for the next several years — something Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols and maintenance chief Brian Dalton have argued is untenable.

Several members of both boards were given a recent tour to view dilapidated conditions at both Bluestone and both Park View buildings — where flooding, lack of heat, potential exposure to asbestos, security deficiencies and other problems are rampant.

Carter told supervisors that they would have to attend a special call meeting on Oct. 2 to make a final decision on whether to move forward with borrowing and, if so, at what amount.

In other business at the regular monthly board meeting on Monday, supervisors heard from Beth Engelhorn, executive director of the Southside Community Services Board, which provides mental health and substance abuse treatment to residents of Mecklenburg, Brunswick and Halifax counties.

The SCSB operational budget for the 2018 fiscal year is $13.9 million. Nearly two-thirds of the agency’s income comes from Medicaid reimbursements. Ten percent of the budget is supposed to come from the three participating counties.

The SCSB is required to offer emergency and case management services to people with mental health or substance abuse issues, but Engelhorn noted that the agency also offers 32 additional services.

Jim Jennings asked about the SCSB’s long-term plan to deal with rising heroin use in the area. Engelhorn responded that heroin is not the no. 1 substance abuse issue locally. She said the top two are marijuana and alcohol, followed by cocaine abuse.

“The state considers opiate abuse a priority but says it is incumbent on the [community service board] to find funding. We have to show numbers — must show that there is a crisis,” Engelhorn said.

Hearing this, Carter encouraged Engelhorn to meet with both Sandra Gregory, head of Social Services, and the local sheriff, to learn their perceptions of the opiate crisis Mecklenburg County is laboring under.

Engelhorn said she recognizes a problem exists and is concerned that her organization is not capturing those that need help. She added that the CSB is not currently authorized to offer Suboxone, a treatment for opiate dependence. In addition, the wait time to get an appointment with a counselor is approximately 48 days.

“We’ve hired a consulting firm to look into and help us reduce wait times,” she noted.

Last year the SCSB, which has about 250 employees, served more than 3,700 individuals with substance abuse or mental health problems at a cost of about $3,600 per person.

They spend nearly $800,000 on psychiatry services each year for the clients, but have only $30,000 per year to spend on in-patient detox programs.

While solar farms were not a topic on the agenda for Monday’s meeting, David Brankley, who represents District 8, expressed his concern about the rush of companies considering locating solar farms in his district. “I am not against solar energy,” he explained before adding that he is opposed to covering more than 6,000 acres with solar panels in one area.

Brankley estimated that if every company currently looking to install a solar farm in Mecklenburg County was approved, between 6,000 and 7,000 acres of farmland would be covered.

Dan Tanner expressed frustration with the lack of communication coming from the Governor’s Go Virginia initiative.

GO Virginia’s mission is to support programs that create more high-paying jobs through incentivized collaboration between business, education, and government to diversify and strengthen the economy in every region of the Commonwealth.

Tanner said the organization is not responsive enough to the needs of Mecklenburg and other counties in Southside Virginia. The last initiative this group discussed was the Rural Airband Initiative launched by Microsoft and Mid-Atlantic Broadband, which seeks to connect homes in rural Charlotte and Halifax Counties to the internet with a variety of new technologies, including wireless signals delivered over TV “white spaces”, or unused frequency spectrum.

Glanzy Spain shared his concern that VDOT’s new “Smart Scale” initiative will leave rural counties with insufficient funds to pave and maintain their roads. The premise of Smart Scale is to divert funds to meet the real needs of communities as determined by VDOT, according to Spain, which he said means urban areas will receive nearly all the money for roads.

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