Over the past year I have written many columns against city council’s plans to demolish the Barrett Building to construct a $10 million new City Hall and against the commissioners and school boards’ $40 million school consolidation plan.
I wanted to take this column to review the facts, and update citizens on where things stand.
Regarding city council’s $10 million City Hall, there have been many facts established. The city of Laurinburg’s population has decreased over the past five years. City employees as a whole have not increased and the number of employees working at the police station has decreased in the last five years. The current Barrett Building and Municipal Building passed Scotland County building inspection this year with no major findings. The Municipal Building passed an OSHA inspection in 2013. In the past year, over 3,000 citizens have signed a petition against a new City Hall. There have been dozens and dozens of citizens who have addressed City Council opposing a new city hall. To date, only two citizens, a married couple, have expressed support for a new City Hall. City council has not given the citizens reasons why the only or best option is to build a $10 million new building.
Nevertheless, city council has proceeded. Council has already spent $250,000 drawing up plans and is now “wide open” spending another $200,000 to prepare the 5,000 square foot Stanford Building downtown which will be used as temporary offices for city staff over the next year while the Barrett Building is demolished and their new $10, 000 City Hall is built.
Regarding School Consolidation many facts have been established as well. The Scotland County school population is declining at approximately 100 students per year. This has led to several of schools having occupancy rates of between 60-70 percent capacity. The county commissioners asked the schools to consider looking into any savings that might be had by reducing the excess capacity.
The Schools took this simple request of the commissioners and have turned it into an opportunity to develop a plan to close six schools (Washington Park, Pate Gardner, Covington, North Laurinburg, IE Johnson and South Scotland), do away with the only middle school in the Laurinburg, expand several schools (Sycamore Lane and Laurel Hill) and now are seriously considering demolishing the AB Gibson building to build a new downtown $30 million, 800 student elementary school that will have an underground parking deck, two stories for the children, a pool, a gym and a shooting range. The total “consolidation plan” will cost over $40 million, will eliminate 40 locally paid school employees (mostly teachers, though the schools will not say exactly which ones) and will not noticeably reduce the taxpayers school tax burden at all.
At every stage of school consolidation there has been almost unanimous citizen opposition to the schools plans to close schools, enlarge others and especially to build a large downtown elementary school. Nevertheless, the schools and the county commissioners proceed and have refused to let the citizen’s vote on these expenses and changes.
So what should or can the citizens of Laurinburg and Scotland County do to stop their local government from ignoring them? It is clear that no matter how many citizens object to their plans, the city council, school board and county commissioners just simply will not listen to what almost 100 percent of the citizens want.
Fortunately, there is a way for the citizens to stop this. Before a local government can borrow money, whether it be the $10 million that city council wants to borrow or the $40 million the commissioners and schools want to borrow, they have to get approval from the State of North Carolina (through the office of the Local Government Commission or “LGC”). The state can and has turned down local governments in situations where there is no clearly documented need and where there is strong public opposition. The state can either insist that there be a referendum or can simply deny the loan.
So, if you are one of the 99 percent of citizens who oppose spending millions on things you do not want, it is important to sign petitions and show up at public meetings. Don’t do these things in the hope that the local elected officials will listen, we know they will not.
But because petitions and public comments at public hearings, such as the one next Monday, May 5 at the AB Gibson building on the closing of North Laurinburg and Covington, are what the state looks at when deciding to approve a loan by a local government, I hope to see you there.
Matthew Block serves as mayor of Laurinburg. He writes a bi-weekly column on the city and municipal issues.