After a marathon five hours of discussion on Wednesday (Jan. 13), Haywood County commissioners voted unanimously to buy the abandoned Wal-Mart shopping center near Lake Junaluska and retrofit the space to house the Department of Social Services and health department. Commissioners have been deliberating for more than a year on how to handle the crumbling DSS facility.
Three options presented themselves to the board: renovate the building, parts of which were built 80 years ago; build a new facility; or move offices to the renovated Wal-Mart. It would cost roughly $6.1 million to renovate the DSS and health department buildings, according to Dale Burris, Haywood’s director of facilities and maintenance.
However, County Manager David Cotton said the buildings “lack flexibility” for necessary renovations and upfits due to inherent design flaws.
Purchasing property and starting again from scratch would cost county taxpayers $25 to $30 million, according to research by the county and two architecture firms. Meanwhile, the county claims it could potentially save more than $12 million by taking over the old Wal-Mart.
“To me, there’s no choice there,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “Seems quite obvious."
Commissioner Bill Upton emphasized that the timing was crucial for making a decision.
“I don’t see this opportunity coming this way again,” said Upton. “We just got one shot, and that’s it.”
Commissioners felt especially pressured to move forward, knowing the state could yank 65 percent of DSS’s funds if it continued to flunk state standards. For now, the DSS building ranks in the bottom 1 percent of the state.
Haywood hopes to lock in a federal stimulus loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase and retrofit the old Wal-Mart. That loan would result in $260,000 of annual debt service payments for 40 years and could possibly lead to a half-cent increase in the tax rate.
While a group of eight citizens came to the meeting to oppose the purchase, citing the need to save taxpayer dollars, the commissioners were adamant about finally moving on the deal.
Johnnie Cure said she didn’t buy the argument that the county must spend more to save in the long run. “It just doesn’t make sense to any of us,” said Cure. “Your mathematics, it ends up being fuzzy math where you can twist the facts and you can prove whatever you want to prove to us.”
On the other hand, the directors of DSS and health department came to the commissioners to plead their case and demonstrate a dire need for change.
They shared a slideshow of images to vividly illustrate the deteriorating conditions of facilities, revealing peeling paint, water leaks, hanging wires, and windows that are permanently stuck open. Some clients have routinely gotten stuck in the DSS building’s aging elevator.
“These are the reasons, the real reasons why we need to do something,” said Ira Dove, director of DSS.
Over at the health department, the two reigning concerns were adequate space and confidentiality.
Health department workers have had to use a garbage can to collect water leaking from the ceiling and surround cabinets with small heaters to prevent pipes from freezing.
Health director Carmine Rocco said the health department could not continue operate the same way year after year, hoping for its needs to be addressed. Rocco applauded the commissioners for their forward thinking approach.