There will be pretty good theater at the county Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday night, with a compelling subplot.
The subplot will be the appearance of schools Superintendent Johnny Hunt, a county commissioner for 18 years and chairman of the board for 12, who will toss the current commissioners a request they would rather not field at the current time, support for a technical school that could cost as much as $44 million.
Hunt, during his time on the board, served with four of the current commissioners, Chairman Noah Woods and Tom Taylor, Raymond Cummings and Hubert Sealey, and is not a stranger to the other four, Roger Oxendine, Jerry Stephens, David Edge and Lance Herndon.
But Hunt’s sale will be difficult as the county has no choice but to build a jail with a price-tag similar to the one projected for the technical school — and four commissioners, Woods, Edge, Herndon and Sealey facing re-election in May.
This newspaper has been loud and consistent in its criticism of the county commissioners for the past 14 months after revelations of their pay and benefits, but this mess isn’t their doing.
A jail must be built because the state says so. The current facility is out of room, and Robeson County, which tops the state in violent and overall crime, has no shortage of people who need to be kept away from the public as they await trial.
A technical school certainly isn’t a necessity, although we think it could transform this county over generations, and perhaps kick aside the need to keep building bigger jails by putting people to work in good-paying jobs. There is also a strong argument that money spent on a technical school would be better used addressing the needs of our current school facilities, many of which are in disrepair.
The rub, of course, is how to pay for all of this.
The commissioners are not anxious to add onto the county’s 77-cent tax rate, one of the highest in the state, especially as they continue to be bless themselves with some of the best pay and benefits of any commissioners in North Carolina. Oh, and then there is that $240,000 a year in discretionary funds that they treat as Monopoly money.
We are sure that in advance of the May election, the commissioners will tell us they will build the jail without hiking taxes. Whether that can be done will be known in the month that follows the election.
Commissioner Tom Taylor told The Robesonian he could only support the technical school if it were paid for with a hike in the local sales tax. A quarter-cent hike in the sales tax, using numbers that are 3 years old, would raise about $1.5 million a year, so that tax would be with us for decades.
We agree, however, that this pain would have to be shared, and not handed only to property owners.
Monday night will be interesting, although we think we know where it will end, with the commissioners agreeing to pay for a feasibility study to see if a technical school is needed and how it would be paid for. The rest of this story, we don’t know.