Dan Finnerty – Contributing Writer
Following the special, post-election mandatory meeting Dec. 5, Macon County Commissioners (MCC) met two more times in the month of December on the 13th and 21st, the latter of which was a joint session with the Macon County Board of Education (MCBOE) and focused on school project updates. Highlands and Macon middle schools were included in the discussions as both are undergoing renovations of different types: Macon Middle School (MMS) for locker room and track upgrades and Highlands with middle school upgrades as well as soccer field and pre-K construction.
The new Franklin High School (FHS) development project was a prominent topic of the evening. Architectural firm LS3P’s Paul Boney was on hand to provide updates to the project’s status. Boney talked about obstacles as well as decisions that must be made on the high school project.
“We’re fighting right now 1% inflation. Every month this project goes up 1%,” Boney said.
While some of the escalation is accounted for in the project budget, any significant delaying in execution will likely add to the cost. The next major steps in the process include design review and construction estimate evaluations for project Phases 1 and 2. Currently, $335,122 remains budgeted for 2023. Updated construction cost estimates will be ready for review in late January.
LS3P has also applied for a $50 million grant that could significantly assist toward the overall proposed $118 million budget estimated for the FHS project. However, the state grant process will not be completed until around May 2023, so some uncertainty is associated with that effort. Given that the last bond for schools in North Carolina was in 2000, Boney emphasized that the building costs will need to be a combination of the state grant and county funding. Yet, the one-quarter percent local sales and use tax referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot that was aimed at assisting with the school project in the way of $2 million a year, was not approved.
Boney maintained that county commissioners and the public is informed on project cost and status.
“We’re going to do everything humanly possible to make this work,” he said.
In other school projects, the MMS locker room building contract has been executed by the Carolina Specialties Construction company. The Highlands Middle School renovations are funded by the Repair and Renovation Fund as part of the N.C. Education Lottery. The MCC approved LS3P as the architect and County Manager Derek Roland to negotiate the fee/contract for architectural services. The overall budget is projected at $697,730 and with $300,000 in 2022 along with another $500,000 allocated from the Education Lottery for 2023, funding is in place. A contract was also approved in November for LS3P to provide architectural services for the Highlands School Project, subject to school board approval for scope of services. Currently, LS3P is completing design, and county commissioners still need to identify funding mechanisms and bid out the project. For the MMS track project, bids are due back to the school system by Jan. 31. While the cost is estimated between $645 and $926 thousand, the school system has received nearly $110,000 in grant funding thus far.
Macon Schools Superintendent Chris Baldwin laid out some additional information tied to the various school projects. The school board is currently in the Request for Proposal (RFP) process for the track and Highland’s soccer field projects, the deadline for which is the end of January. Commissioner John Shearl pointed out that from the original $250,000 funding output for a soccer field, the current $840,000 cost placeholder surfaced when parties involved realized that due to drainage issues, among some other concerns, an artificial turf field was going to be installed. The upfront cost of those types of fields is more expensive but the long-term costs of upkeep and maintenance is normally lower.
Regarding the still unfunded projects, County Commissioner Chairman Paul Higdon motioned for those items to go back to the MCBOE for further discussion, scoring, and prioritization before being brought into the 2023 budget because there is no budgeting currently available otherwise. After repeated attempts by the chairman to gain a second to his motion and subsequent vote of approval, the meeting was adjourned, with no vote taken.
At the Dec. 13 meeting, Macon County Transit Director Darlene Asher presented a public hearing on behalf of the Community Transportation Program, during which she presented a request for a FY-’24 Capital Grant involving six replacement vehicles. The amount requested was $674,392. Because of a 20% match by the state, the county is being requested to provide $137,879. The grant is a yearly occurrence with changes in request as necessary annually. The board unanimously approved the request.
During the public comment period, George McClure expressed his and other pickleballers’ gratitude for county commission support.
“We wanted to express our appreciation with the board’s ongoing efforts in getting dedicated courts in the city,” said McClure.
He also provided that his group is taking a three-pronged approach regarding pickleball –associated development: private money, corporate donations, and grant applications – all in complement to what the county has already allocated toward the courts.
Macon County Board of Elections Director Melanie Thibault gave an update about testing on new election equipment. The next step is a simulated election that will last three to four days in late January and mimic a real election, minus actual voters. The simulated election will include poll workers, a few members from the state board, and representatives from Hart (the company providing the new machines).
Jack Morgan, planning, permitting, and development director for Macon County, provided an update on the Nantahala Library Community Center renovation. Roland offered that while an architect is not required for the project, “having an architect would enable us to put a scope of work into a plan where there is no second guessing what’s to be done on the scope of work.” Morgan defined the proposed budget of the renovation to be $258,940, while the cost of an architect is expected to be approximately $28,000. Roland went on to describe the value of fund expenditure upon an architect.
“We can put an architect on this project and stay within state funding allocation … I would ask the board to consider using an architect without us [the board] having to put bids out for various aspects of the overall project.”
More discussion about funding of current school projects will take place at future meetings.
The next regularly scheduled meeting will be held Jan. 10, at the Macon County
Courthouse third floor Commissioner Boardroom in Franklin at 6 p.m.