RALEIGH — Wake County commissioners elected Phil Matthews as the board’s chair and Tony Gurley as vice chair on Monday on a party line vote.
The partisan start to the new term was in keeping with the division that has marked the working of the board in recent years, and the split was again in evidence on some of the issues – including schools’ land purchase and construction – that came before commissioners during a 4 1/2-hour meeting.
The board’s four Republicans backed their fellow party members Matthews and Gurley. The three Democrats had supported Betty Lou Ward as chair and James West as vice chair. Matthews, who won his first term as chair, was first elected to the board in 2010, and has served as vice chair.
Matthews of Garner is owner of Matthews Sight and Sound, a volunteer firefighter and a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War.
Taking over as chair from Joe Bryan, Matthews said he would continue the board’s practice of trying to make sure items are ready for action by the time they are placed on a meeting agenda.
“I like to move forward and get things done,” he said.
But at the request of member Paul Coble, the board stripped two school-related items out of its consent agenda, where they could have been approved without discussion, and tabled them until the next meeting, in January. Both were second readings of school board requests to appropriate money for school design.
The Republican-led Board of Commissioners has clashed with the Democratic-led school board over which should have control over building, maintaining and ownership of schools, with commissioners saying the school board needs to be more careful how it spends taxpayer funds.
Putting off $5M in design costs
Combined, the proposals tabled on Monday involve $5 million for the design of three elementary schools scheduled to open in 2016 and a middle school scheduled to open in 2017.
Ward asked Coble why the delay was needed, and Coble responded that there were some cost issues he wants to ask about.
Ward pointed out that schools Superintendent Jim Merrill was in the audience, and said, “He could probably answer any questions you might have,” but Coble and the other Republicans voted to postpone the two items.
The board also had a lengthy discussion about a school board request to purchase additional land for a planned middle school off Interstate 540 and Leesville Church Road in North Raleigh. Republicans pressed Joe Desormeaux, assistant superintendent for facilities for the schools, to explain why the school system didn’t have enough land at the site, which was purchased several years ago, and why it was now having to pay a relatively high price for additional tracts. In the end, Bryan noted that the school system bought the bulk of the land at a bargain and the request was approved.
School leaders have said that when the board delays votes that affect school planning, it makes it difficult to keep the opening of schools on track.
Last month, commissioners put on hold a deal negotiated by county staff allowing the school board to lease the site for an elementary school at the North Wake Landfill in North Raleigh for $10 a year instead of paying $675,000 to buy the land. School officials had hoped to bid out construction work for the school this month.
“Look forward to timely approval”
Desormeaux said school board staff still are figuring out just how long they can wait to get started on that project if they want to meet their goal of opening the school in August 2015.
Desormeaux said the designs on the new schools won’t start as planned. He said the schools could be completed on time if all else progresses well.
“These actions absolutely have the potential to impact our ability to open these schools on schedule,” school board Chairman Keith Sutton said in a written statement. “While this is also a concern of the Board of Education, we feel confident that we can properly manage these projects, as we have done in the past, and so do a majority of Wake County taxpayers. The Board of Education and school district staff will continue working to improve our process and we look forward to timely approval of these items by the Board of Commissioners.”
Little bar, long discussion
Also during the meeting, the board took up the case of The Local Bar, formerly known as The Iron Horse Bar, on U.S. 64, which the town of Apex relinquished from its zoning jurisdiction in October. The town had specifically asked to include the bar in its extra-territorial jurisdiction in 2007.
Commissioners were unaware of a case in which a municipality had asked to take a property into its zoning area and then given it back.
If commissioners took no action, the bar would soon have been left without zoning, meaning there would be no regulation as to how the property could be used. It sits in the watershed for Jordan Lake, and as a commercial operation, it doesn’t fit any zoning category the county can apply to it. The half-century-old building needs to be updated, but the owners can’t borrow money to make substantial changes to the building because lenders won’t lend money for properties that don’t conform with zoning regulations.
After chastising Apex town leaders, commissioners agreed to take the parcel back into the county’s zoning jurisdiction, creating a notch in the Apex zoning boundaries. Commissioners also ordered staff to look at the case, and others where properties don’t conform to zoning rules, to see if they can find ways to compromise.
Staff writer Keung Hui contributed to this article.