Capital priorities get sorted in Jackson

fr jacksonbuildingThe animal shelter and health department are in, and the swimming pool and Green Energy Park expansion are out, Jackson County commissioners decided in a wide-ranging discussion of capital improvement priorities recently.

“This is one of the most challenging parts of being an elected official — capital projects and budgets,” said Commissioner Mark Jones, who’s been on the board since 2006. “And they come back to you every year.” 

Commissioners spent an hour hashing out a 12-item-long list of potential projects, deciding which they’ll look to fund first and discussing how they might pay for it all. They considered factors such as the cost of the project, how many people it would benefit and the immediacy of the need. 

The upshot? Building a new health department building — or possibly renovating the existing one — came in at number one, followed by a new animal shelter. Increasing the number of community parks and greenways came in next, with renovations to the Jackson County Justice Center sliding into fourth. 

None of these projects will come cheap. County Manager Chuck Wooten has assigned a rough, ballpark cost to each item on the list, pegging the health department at $9.5 million and the animal shelter at $2.5 million. 

“The dollars we put here are just kind of placeholders,” Wooten said. “I have no idea whether these are good numbers or bad numbers.”

Still, the multi-million-dollar figures took some commissioners aback. 

“We’re talking about putting more in an animal shelter than you and I have been able to acquire all our lives,” said Commissioner Boyce Dietz. 

On the other hand, you have to consider that these projects result in buildings that last for about 40 years, Jones said. 

“Look at it as however much a year for the next 40 years,” he told Dietz. “I think that makes it very palatable.”

The animal shelter and health department buildings are projects commissioners have been talking about for a long time, with those functions currently housed in aging buildings that have outlived their usefulness. The greenways component would be more of a long-term goal, with commissioners committing to extend the greenway and increase community parks as opportunities arise. The justice center project, meanwhile, is spurred by Superior Court Judge Bradley Letts’ order that commissioners get a move on with improving an existing building that he says is too small to accommodate current or future court needs. 

Coming in at the tail end of the list — meaning that, while commissioners still hope to see them completed, they don’t plan to fund them anytime soon — were building an indoor swimming pool, adding a ceramics studio to the Green Energy Park, paving the parking lot at the Department on Aging and turning the old rescue squad building on Main Street in Sylva into a community center. 

As the spring budget process gets underway, commissioners will start making decisions about paying for the cost, design and engineering studies they’ll need to have in hand before putting any project out to bid. Information they gather along the way could well impact the order in which the projects are completed. 

“This is probably going to change again as we start to see the numbers on what we can and can’t afford,” McMahan said of the order. 

County-specific projects aren’t the only capital requests in the mix. Commissioners are also responsible for funding capital projects in Jackson County Schools and Southwestern Community College. Large asks from those entities prompted commissioners to place a referendum vote on the June ballot asking voters to add a quarter-cent sales tax to fund them.

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