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HCC building feud persists unresolved

Haywood Community College leaders have chipped away more than $430,000 worth of features from its proposed creative arts building, but the project’s $10.3 million price tag continues to leave county commissioners cringing.

The Haywood County commissioners gave the college the go-ahead on the project last week, without addressing the most contentious issue: its cost.

County leaders voted 4-1 to submit a loan application to the state Local Government Commission, which must approve all debt incurred by local governments — without specifying exactly how much money would be borrowed, admittedly an odd omission from a loan application.

Meanwhile, HCC leaders had asked the commissioners to commit outright to a $12 million loan, which would cover other construction projects along with the cost of the new creative arts building.

The county board stopped short of a full endorsement, sticking to its assertion the college has not done all it can to cut costs.

Commissioners agreed to proceed with the loan application once HCC receives bids on the project, hoping the cost would come in less than anticipated.

A special quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in a referendum two years ago will fund the project. While the special sales tax is earmarked for construction projects at the college, commissioners say they are obligated to make sure it is spent wisely.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley cast the sole vote against the project, again expressing concerns about the proposed building’s price tag.

“I don’t think I can support the building as it’s designed right now,” said Ensley. “I just think the building they’re trying to build is too expensive.”

The college is attempting to acquire “platinum” level environmental certification for its building, equivalent to the highest level of green building in the country. Ensley says the architects he’s consulted have said platinum buildings cost 20 to 25 percent more than usual.

Ensley has requested correspondence between the college and the state construction office and learned, for instance, the college plans to use rainwater to flush toilets in the building, an endeavor that requires double the plumbing.

HCC Board of Trustees Chairman Mark Bumgarner defended the building’s green features, arguing that the creative arts building is subject to strict state energy requirements.

The energy-hungry pottery kilns, welding equipment and shop tools have made it especially costly to meet state guidelines — forcing the college to install more energy saving features than normal to offset the higher than normal energy use.

Following these requirements happens to coincide with criteria for energy-efficient construction.

“The only thing to reduce would be to eliminate space, and space is the most important part,” said Bumgarner. “We’ve gone through a great deal of due diligence. This is not just something that we said, ‘Let’s be fancy and do more than we need to do.’”

As part of its attempts to lower cost, HCC has replaced exterior and interior stone and wood finishes with less expensive options, reduced the amount of exterior site lighting, removed interior sound proofing finishes in low-noise areas, eliminated exterior seating and tables, and eliminated an interior shower stall, planning to use a classroom safety shower instead.

HCC President Rose Johnson said the cost reductions occurred as a part of routine due diligence during the construction design process.

“We informed county commissioners during meetings that we took that step,” said Johnson. “That step was not a result of their questions.”

Though debates have arisen over construction costs in the last few months, commissioners and HCC leaders all agree that the college needs a new creative arts building.

“The college is pleased that the county commissioners took action on is intent to start the process of securing a loan,” said Johnson.

Bumgarner pointed out that HCC’s creative arts program is a keystone that sets the college apart from other community colleges not only in North Carolina, but the entire country.

According to Bumgarner, the county manager and finance director anticipate revenues from the quarter-cent sales tax to bring in about $1.5 million each year, which in Bumgarner’s view is sufficient to apply for a $12 million loan.

“That’s the level that exists with the current recession,” said Bumgarner.

Commissioner Mark Swanger said he would rather see the special sales tax money stretched further rather than every penny being committed to loan payments.

“Why borrow money if you got that money sitting there?” said Swanger, adding that the county commissioners will have the ultimate responsibility for the loan. “If sales tax money coming in is insufficient to pay debt service, the county would be responsible for using property tax money. I take that seriously.”

Past pursuit of building projects proved less than organized

Commissioner Tom Massie wants to see the county formalize how it funds capital projects.

Under the current method entities simply approach the county when they are in need and ask for funding. Massie suggested that entities fill out an application requesting capital project funding, and then county staff can study the forms to determine if the projects are really needed.

The application would give different capital projects a ranking and help the county prioritize projects. He said the N.C. Institute of Government recommends that local governments handle capital projects this way.

Under the county’s current system there is some disorganization, he said. For instance, he said SCC said it didn’t need anything eight months ago and now needs about $1 million for a new building.

Having a formal system will provide a rational and logical explanation as to why projects are needed. He said since he has been on board, some projects that have been approved were nice but not necessarily needed. The application process would enable the county to plan five to 10 years down the road, Massie said.

Massie made the recommendation to fellow commissioners at a capital projects workshop last week.

Swain leaders indifferent to lack of building regulations

Attempts to pass Swain County’s first-ever planning regulations are showing signs of movement, but not in the direction that planning advocates hope.

A county subdivision ordinance, primarily setting standards for road widths and grades, was dropped from discussion by county commissioners a year ago after facing fierce opposition at a public hearing. No work has been done on it since, leaving Swain County as one of the few in the region with no regulations or oversight of construction on mountainside slopes.

The commissioners’ lack of interest in planning has now cost the county a grant that would have rekindled the topic.

Until recently, Swain County was second in line for a pot of money to help communities with planning initiatives, funded by the Southwestern Commission and the Department of Transportation.

The county was given the coveted number two spot because at the time, commissioners seemed serious about a subdivision ordinance and other planning issues.

But since the ordinance is dead in the water, the two grant sponsors asked Swain County Manager Kevin King if it was OK to bump the county further down the list and put neighboring Macon County in the number two spot.

King gave the Southwestern Commission and DOT the go ahead, and later informed the commissioners at the board’s annual retreat last weekend.

“That ordinance was dead anyway,” King told commissioners. “So we don’t have anything in place right now until somebody asks to put it on the agenda.”

King paused to see if commissioners showed signs of interest in the issue, but they remained silent, making it clear they had no intention of being the one to bring the ordinance up again.

Some Swain County residents think now is the time for the county to revisit the issue of planning. The economic downturn has slowed development, leaving commissioners time to hash out details.

“Right now, while land prices are dropping out the bottom, they should be trying to do something,” said Swain native Boyd Gunter. “You got a breathing spell here.”

Gunter, who lives in the Alarka community, has already seen too many developers ravaging his mountains.

“I own mountain land, and I don’t want to see it destroyed,” he said. “It’s just pure negligence on these Realtors’ parts to think you can come and build a house anywhere.”

Gunter has been pushing Swain commissioners to put development regulations of some sort in place for at least two years, but to no avail.

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