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Wednesday, 20 January 2010 16:12

Haywood to buy old Wal-Mart to replace aging DSS, Health Department buildings

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Year after year, Haywood County commissioners recognized the social service and health department buildings were falling apart.

Yet they passed the buck, hoping the next set of fresh-faced commissioners would tackle the lingering issue.

Last week, county commissioners got over a bad case of procrastination and took action.

On Wednesday, Jan. 13, commissioners voted unanimously to buy the old Wal-Mart near Lake Junaluska and renovate the space to house more than 200 employees who have been putting up with leaky roofs, frozen pipes and crammed office space.

County leaders have been deliberating for more than a year on how to handle the crumbling DSS facility. The latest session lasted for nearly five hours, as presentations and comments from all sides were heard for the final time.

The county is not revealing how much it’ll pay Georgia-based RCG Ventures for the property, but its initial estimates place the total cost of the project somewhere between $12 and $12.5 million. The county will shell out about $6.6 million for the property alone.

Commissioners felt especially pressured to move forward knowing the state could yank 65 percent of DSS’s funds if it continued to flunk state standards. While the state pays for the cost of social programs and a portion of social workers salaries, counties are responsible for providing a building for them to work in.

Facility inspections landed the Haywood County’s DSS building in the bottom 1 percent of more than 70 DSS facilities across the state.

Three options presented themselves to the board: renovate the building, parts of which date to 80 years ago; build a new facility; or move offices to the abandoned Wal-Mart.

It would cost roughly $6.1 million to renovate the DSS and health department buildings, according to Dale Burris, Haywood’s director of facilities and maintenance.

Purchasing land and starting again from scratch would cost county taxpayers $25 to $30 million.

Two architectural firms independently ruled out renovation as a viable option — the cost of renovating would likely exceed the price of buying another facility.

County Manager David Cotton pointed out the crumbling structure lacked flexibility and had inherent design flaws due to its age.

Cotton said he wanted to make it “crystal clear” that all counties are mandated to provide adequate services, and that Haywood had to take action.

With the three options in front of them, commissioners felt strongly that the best solution was to occupy the abandoned Wal-Mart.

“To me, there’s no choice there,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “Seems quite obvious.”

Commissioner Bill Upton emphasized that the timing was crucial for making a decision.

“I don’t see this opportunity coming this way again,” said Upton. “We just got one shot, and that’s it.”

While a group of eight citizens came to the meeting to oppose the purchase, citing the need to save taxpayer dollars, the commissioners were adamant about finally moving on the deal.

Jonnie Cure said she didn’t buy the argument that the county must spend more to save in the long run.

“It just doesn’t make sense to any of us,” said Cure. “Your mathematics, it ends up being fuzzy math where you can twist the facts and you can prove whatever you want to prove to us.”

On the other hand, the directors of DSS and the health department came to the commissioners to plead their case and demonstrate a dire need for change.

They shared a slideshow of images to vividly illustrate the deteriorating conditions of facilities, revealing peeling paint, water leaks, hanging wires, and windows that are permanently stuck open. Some clients have gotten stuck in the DSS building’s aging elevator.

“These are the reasons, the real reasons why we need to do something,” said Ira Dove, director of DSS.

Over at the health department, the two reigning concerns were adequate space and confidentiality.

Health department workers have had to use a garbage can to collect water leaking from the ceiling and surround cabinets with small heaters to prevent pipes from freezing.

Health Director Carmine Rocco said the health department could not continue operate the same way year after year, hoping for its needs to be addressed. Rocco applauded the commissioners for their forward thinking approach.

 

What now?

Haywood will attempt to lock in a low-interest federal loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase and retrofit the old Wal-Mart. The county is optimistic about the prospect, as the USDA is now flush with stimulus funds.

Citizen Randy Burress remained unconvinced and said placing all hopes on stimulus money was a “bad joke.”

“All this sunshine and lollipops, you’re still talking about our money,” said Burress. “We can’t stand any more taxes. We don’t need any more taxes, period.”

While commissioners hope they won’t have to raise taxes, they admit the loan could lead to a half-cent increase in the tax rate in 2012.

If Haywood does score the 40-year loan for $12.5 million, it would result in initial loan payments of $260,000 each year. The county may need to borrow less depending on how much it will cost to retrofit the inside of Wal-Mart. Estimates are still pending.

If the county cannot obtain the USDA loan, it would take out a conventional loan and possibly sell county property to raise funds.

The loan process could take up to six months, according to Assistant County Manager Marty Stamey.

A few weeks ago, the county put out a request for bids from local architects. The USDA requires an architect’s project estimate to be included with the loan application.

Stamey said the commissioners will likely make a decision on an architectural firm no later than the second meeting in February.

Meanwhile, the county hopes to put “for sale” signs on some of its other properties. Selling the existing DSS building and health department would add to the county’s property tax base and possibly spur commercial development and sales tax.

Stamey said the county would have to take the long list of structural problems into account when setting the price for the DSS building and handing it off to the next owner.

A potential buyer interested in converting the facility into housing for the elderly has already approached the county.

But considering the recession, Stamey confessed it may be difficult to unload some of the other properties off the county’s hands.

“Some of the property, we may need to keep,” said Stamey.

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