Displaying items by tag: dss

Radical makeover

A major remodeling job to convert the abandoned Wal-Mart in Clyde to house the Haywood County Department of Social Services could get underway by November. This rendering by Asheville firm Padgett & Freeman Architects shows how the dreary big-box storefront will get a new façade more fitting with the mountains. Contractors are now bidding on the $12.5 million project. The 115,000-square-foot superstore will also serve as home for Haywood’s health department, planning and erosion control, building inspections and environmental health. Commissioners bought the Wal-Mart primarily to move DSS from its crumbling building, which would have required millions to fix up. In August, the county locked down a 40-year rural development loan, funded with federal stimulus money through the USDA, to pay for the project.

Haywood County officials foresee the historic hospital in Waynesville one day being transformed into affordable or senior housing.

“That would be my vision,” said Commissioner Bill Upton. “Something might show up that we haven’t thought of, but affordable housing is definitely needed.”

The mammoth brick building occupies an entire block, with 125 rooms and 50,000 square feet of outside space. The Department of Social Services is moving out next fall, and the county is seeking proposals on what to do with the building once vacated.

Developers have until late October to propose a new use for the hospital, but housing of some sort appears to be the commissioners’ preference.

“I felt that would be the highest and best use for that structure,” Commissioner Kevin Ensley said. According to Ensley, at least one developer has already looked at converting the building into affordable housing.

“I wouldn’t have any objection,” said Commissioner Skeeter Curtis. “We always need some housing.”

The Department of Social Services will relocate in fall 2011 to the site of the former Wal-Mart store in Clyde. Commissioners decided it’d be more cost-effective to buy and renovate the deserted superstore rather than fix up the crumbling hospital.

The old hospital was originally built in 1927 and expanded in the 1950s. County officials have said it would cost roughly $6.1 million to renovate it.

Commissioners have complained that the building will need a host of major renovations including a new roof, new windows and rewiring to accommodate the latest technology.

As the first county-owned hospital in North Carolina, however, the building may be eligible to be included in the National Registry of Historic Places, which comes with tax credits for renovations.

“I think the historic tax credits are what really makes it attractive for developers,” said Ensley.

 

A time of great need

Mountain Projects, a community action agency in Haywood and Jackson counties, may be on the ground assisting any developer that steps in.

“If they choose to do affordable housing, at that point, we’ll get involved,” said Patsy Dowling, director of Mountain Projects.

The agency can guide developers through the highly competitive process of receiving low-income housing tax credits from the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency.

Earlier this year, Mountain Projects helped launch Smokey Meadows, an affordable apartment complex in Canton. It filled up in record time.

Dowling is well-aware of the struggles that the working class faces in tracking down affordable housing, especially in recent times. She has seen the waiting list for affordable housing assistance backlogged for as long as three years.

“Our waiting list got so long we had to close it and stop taking applications,” said Dowling. “It’s back open, but the wait is tremendous …hundreds and hundreds of people in Haywood County are on the waiting list.”

Mountain Projects is helpless to help even those who walk in with their suitcases with nowhere to go.

While neighbors may be wary about living near low-income housing, Dowling said a comprehensive background check is done and clients must sign a strict 17-page lease.

“In these apartments, it’s not just anybody,” said Dowling.

Ensley agreed that bringing affordable housing to the area would only bring benefits.

“I don’t think that low-income or moderate-income housing is a negative at all,” said Ensley.

Another bonus is that the building would be put back on the tax rolls, Ensley and Dowling said. Affordable housing complexes not only pay taxes, but also create jobs.

If a developer takes on the task of renovating the old hospital, the central office for Haywood County Schools, which occupies one small section of the building, would likely be uprooted.

As commissioners await proposals, Curtis said the last thing he wants to see is the hospital destroyed.

“It’d be nice if we could save what we could of it,” Curtis said.

“A lot of our people were born there,” said Upton, who worked in the 1927 building while serving as school superintendent.

An elderly man was swindled out of $5,500 by a Department of Social Services employee in Swain County, according to an investigation by the Bryson City police department.

As nursing home bills for his wife mounted, the man had sought help from DSS worker Nicole Warren in hopes of qualifying for Medicaid.

Warren has been charged with three counts of obtaining property under false pretenses and one count of felony conversion, or theft, by the Bryson City Police

Warren had told the man — who wants to stay anonymous and whom authorities refused to name — that he and his wife had too much money in the bank to qualify.

It isn’t uncommon to ask Medicaid applicants with too much money to “spend down” their assets on valid household expenses before they can qualify. In this case, however, Warren proposed some rather unorthodox solutions.

According to Bryson City Det. Sgt. Diane Wike, Warren first asked the man to give her a $3,000 loan. He felt pressured to relent.

“He felt like if he didn’t give her the loan, he might not get the Medicaid for the wife,” said Wike.

Later, Warren asked him to “spend down” a further $2,500. While he proposed making a donation to St. Jude hospital, Warren suggested an alternative charity: the N.C. Social Services Association. She told him to make out a check and she would make sure the organization got it. Instead, Warren tried unsuccessfully to cash it herself, an attempt that was caught on bank surveillance.

Warren went back to the man, insisting that he make the donation in cash instead, according to police reports. The elderly man eventually conceded but demanded a receipt. Warren wrote a handwritten receipt in which she scribbled her name illegibly.

He then asked for an affirmation on letterhead, which Warren wrote using the official DSS letterhead.

“She didn’t sign her name to that one,” said Wike.

Warren also asked for the man to transfer property deeds to her name, but he refused.

The man reported Warren to DSS in late May, and the attorney for DSS in turn reported it to the Bryson City Police Department in mid-June.

Wike said Warren confessed almost instantly.

“Her explanation was that she got in a bind and needed money,” said Wike. “She had a clean record. She’s never been charged with anything.”“

Tammy Cagle, the Swain County DSS director, did not return calls, and Justin Greene, the attorney for Swain County DSS, said that he could not comment on any “ongoing personnel issues or certain issues involving law enforcement.”

Abuse of the elderly

This particular case undoubtedly qualifies as elder abuse, according to Kim Gardner, elder abuse program coordinator for the 30th Judicial District Domestic Violence-Sexual Assault Alliance.

“It’s financial exploitation,” said Gardner. “She used her power and influence to obtain $5,500 from this man fraudulently.”

Gardner suspected the Bryson City Police did not include specific elder abuse charges in Warren’s indictments because its penalties are less severe. There is no mandatory jail time though probation can be given.

“That’s probably why they went with the stronger charges,” said Gardner, adding that she’d like to see the charges changed. “We need more teeth in the elder abuse laws.”

To qualify as elder abuse, the victim must be over 60. Though Gardner warned the elderly to be cautious with their money, she doesn’t think they should be afraid to ask for assistance at DSS.

“I know a lot of people have negative thoughts about DSS from time to time,” said Gardner. “[But this is] an unusual occurrence. They’re there to help people.”

The deserted Wal-Mart near Clyde will be hardly recognizable once Haywood County is through with its makeover of the megastore.

Sunlight will stream in through 30 skylights scattered across the low-slung ceiling of the former big-box store. A new metal roof will cover the front 25 feet of the building, with a mountain vernacular style entrance supplanting the once mundane building facade.

The made-over building will be a far cry from the cramped and crumbling offices that currently house the Department of Social Services and Health Department, which will relocate to the new site.

A $6.1 million renovation will transform the once gaping interior space into “little communities,” according to project architect Scott Donald with Asheville-based Padgett and Freeman Architects, PA.

The renovated space will include a shared entrance lobby, health clinic, Meals on Wheels kitchen, dental clinic, W.I.C. area, along with offices for more than 200 social workers.

Also included in the preliminary design is space for a central permitting office, including planning, erosion, building inspections and environmental health.

County commissioners voted to purchase the vacant big-box for $6.6 million in January. Architects estimate the renovations will cost another $6.1 million to retrofit the nearly 100,000 square feet of space.

Plans are still in the early stages. Commissioners will sign off on a design by fall and send the project out to bid. Construction could be completed by summer 2011.

Commissioners say the old Wal-Mart is a bargain to solve a problem that could no longer be ignored. DSS was fed up with leaky roofs, frozen pipes and cramped office space, as well as the lack of space and confidentiality at their offices, which date as far back as the 1920s. Facility inspections landed Haywood’s DSS building in the bottom 1 percent of 70 DSS facilities throughout the state.

A handful of Haywood County residents are demanding a vote by the people before county leaders proceed with purchasing the abandoned Wal-Mart building.

The request comes despite the county commissioners’ unanimous vote in January to buy the shopping center to house the Department of Social Services along with the Health Department.

Haywood has yet to secure the 40-year, low-interest federal Rural Development loan to fund the project.

If granted, the loan would require an annual debt payment of about $632,000 starting in 2012. But the county claims rent from Tractor Supply Co., which is leasing a part of the building, along with state reimbursements for health and social services, will cut that number by about half.

Citizens at Monday’s commissioners meeting argued that since the money would be coming out of their own pockets, they should be allowed to vote on the issue.

They claimed that commissioners were willfully bypassing the vote by deciding to apply for the federal loan, instead of holding a bond referendum to finance the project.

“The commissioners, in essence, are telling the people of Haywood County that you do not trust our judgment,” said Beverly Elliot.

Another speaker, Lynda Bennett, accused the commissioners of holding secret sessions, while at the same time admitting the commissioners had not broken any laws in purchasing the Wal-Mart.

“It is legal, but it’s not popular,” said Bennett.

Chairman Kirk Kirkpatrick said he fully stands behind the commissioners’ decision and sees a vote by the people as unnecessary in this case.

“We are elected to make decisions on behalf of the county,” said Kirkpatrick, adding that not every item that comes forth demands a countywide vote. “Vote by the people is an expensive item, and we choose those items carefully.”

Kirkpatrick said the commissioners had only gone into closed session to discuss price negotiations, and closed session minutes will be released once the purchase is finalized.

Later in the meeting, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis pointed out that the citizens who criticized the commissioners had already left before the seeing the presentation of design plans for the renovated Wal-Mart.

“They don’t have enough interest to be involved with what’s going on here,” said Curtis. “How in the world can you vote on something if you don’t know what you’re voting on?”

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.

Fire code violations, compromised client confidentiality, leaking roofs, freezing pipes, lack of energy efficiency, severely limited space, windows that won’t close...

The problems with the current DSS and health department facilities would take pages to list.

And the issues have not escaped unnoticed by the 12,000 residents — 20 percent of the Haywood County population — receiving services at DSS and nearly 10,000 residents regularly making their way to the health department each year.

Whether it’s the client whose confidential health information is heard by everyone nearby or those who routinely get stuck in ancient elevators, these flaws are no secret.

That’s especially the case now that the worsened economy has lead to increased usage of these county services.

Ira Dove, director of social services, asked commissioners last week if they would want to work in such a building or feel safe having their mother riding its broken-down elevator.

The current DSS building, located on the Old Asheville Highway between downtown and the roundabout, was originally a county hospital built in 1927. The portion that the DSS uses was added on in 1950.

Meanwhile the health department, found a mile further down the Old Asheville Highway across from Junaluska Elementary, is housed in a 54-year-old building.

Both facilities have difficulty keeping up with modern technology due to when they were built.

“Back when there was no computer — only typewriters,” said Dale Burris, the county’s facilities maintenance director.

Most commissioners have visited the facility and have found they could easily justify the need for action to taxpayers.

“I’d like to invite the public to come out and see that facility out there,” said Commissioner Skeeter Curtis.

The challenges of renovating the DSS building are many. An extensive renovation would be necessary. It would involve stripping down the interior to its structural skeleton and reworking the space to create efficiency.

DSS has no need for the old hospital’s wide corridors. And the old patient rooms are too big for one social service worker, yet too small for two.

Architects estimate the staff would have to be moved for an entire year as renovation took place.

The county would also face the added expense of dealing with the structure’s asbestos and lead-based paint issues.

The low ceilings would present major challenges for installing modern heating, venting and air conditioning.

An additional 15,000 to 20,000 square feet of space would be required to comply with state requirements.

The health department has insufficient parking for clients, especially during times of mass vaccinations, like flu shots.

“I think this is a lesson that all of us should learn,” said Curtis. “The better you take care of your facilities and your belongings, the better off you’re going to be in the long run.”

After a marathon five hours of discussion on Wednesday (Jan. 13), Haywood County commissioners voted unanimously to buy the abandoned Wal-Mart shopping center near Lake Junaluska and retrofit the space to house the Department of Social Services and health department. Commissioners have been deliberating for more than a year on how to handle the crumbling DSS facility.

Three options presented themselves to the board: renovate the building, parts of which were built 80 years ago; build a new facility; or move offices to the renovated 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.

However, County Manager David Cotton said the buildings “lack flexibility” for necessary renovations and upfits due to inherent design flaws.

Purchasing property and starting again from scratch would cost county taxpayers $25 to $30 million, according to research by the county and two architecture firms. Meanwhile, the county claims it could potentially save more than $12 million by taking over the old 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.”

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. For now, the DSS building ranks in the bottom 1 percent of the state.

Haywood hopes to lock in a federal stimulus loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to purchase and retrofit the old Wal-Mart. That loan would result in $260,000 of annual debt service payments for 40 years and could possibly lead to a half-cent increase in the tax rate.

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.

Johnnie 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 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 routinely 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.

Haywood County Commissioners are expected to vote this week to buy the abandoned Wal-Mart shopping center near Lake Junaluska and retrofit the space to house the Department of Social Services.

Commissioners will convene a special meeting on the issue Wednesday (Jan. 13) where a vote is likely. They have been considering the old Wal-Mart site for more than a year.

Commissioner Mark Swanger said there are several reasons the old Wal-Mart is under serious consideration by the county — primarily because it is the cheapest option. Swanger called it a potential “bargain” for taxpayers.

Remodeling the current DSS office building, which dates back to the late 1920s and early ‘50s, could suck the county into a money pit, Swanger said.

“It would require millions in renovations, heating air, roof windows and you still have an inadequate space for doing business,” Swanger said.

Other sticky issues include lack of privacy for DSS workers handling sensitive cases and lack of handicapped accessibility.

“It is in the bottom one percent of DSS facilities in the state of North Carolina,” Swanger said.

Commissioner Bill Upton detailed the never-ending maintenance issues.

“It’s going to need a new roof, it’s going to need windows, it’s not wired for today’s technologies,” said Upton. “We could go on and on about what it would cost us, we would still have an old building.”

Meanwhile, building something new — including the cost of buying land and site work — would likely be twice as much as what the county hopes to spend on the old Wal-Mart site.

Upton, who supports buying the Wal-Mart property, estimates that a brand new DSS building would scoop $25 to $30 million out of Haywood’s budget.

Taking over the Wal-Mart property will require extensive remodeling to turn the gaping retail shell into offices, but it already has a roof and comes with a parking lot, for example.

Upton is confident that the new county offices would serve as a strong anchor for the shopping center and stimulate adjacent businesses.

Until now, county leaders have had a bad habit of putting off the looming problem for another year, according to Swanger.

“I think it has been recognized by many boards that this space is unsuitable and inadequate,” Swanger said.

As the DSS building continued to deteriorate, the county spent the past decade building a new justice center, a new jail and remodeling the historic courthouse, tying up much of its capital, along with things like a new elementary school in Bethel and new buildings at Haywood Community College.

“I suppose it has been just a matter of priorities,” Swanger said.

Though negotiations have been on and off for more than a year, the county is now in a better financial position to buy the property, Upton said.

“If we don’t do something now, it’s going to cost us much more in the future to buy property and start building,” said Commissioner Skeeter Curtis.

Upton also pointed out the geographic location in the middle of the county as being convenient to a greater number of residents.

If approved on Wednesday, Haywood’s DSS and health departments might share the old Wal-Mart with Tractor Supply Co., which is in the process of signing a lease for a portion of the store.

Haywood County commissioners are once again considering the abandoned Wal-Mart shell for a new Department of Social Services building.

The current DSS building is housed in a cramped and crumbling 80-year-old building that was once the county’s old hospital. Patching the building has become an expensive proposition, with the latest issue a leaking roof that would cost $260,000 to repair. The county’s facility director, Dale Burris, said there is no easy patch that could solve the problem.

“We can’t find where the leaks are to be honest. You patch one area and it comes in a different area,” Burris said.

Commissioners have long known that the DSS building either needed a major and costly top-to-bottom overhaul or relocation to a new building. When Wal-Mart left a gaping hole in the strip mall where it was located to take up new digs on the other side of town last year, commissioners began eyeing the vacant spot. They decided not to pursue it at the time given the county’s economic situation with the recession. At that time commissioners were seeking a federal loan of up to $11 million to purchase and renovate the retail building.

Commissioners decided they should revisit it, however.

“It’s going to be a constant stream of tax dollars going into a building that is 80 years old,” Swanger said. “I think we would be remiss to marry ourselves to this building. If we put a quarter million dollars into it, we will do the same thing the year after and the year after, and at the end of the day we will still have a bad building.”

At the time commissioners were considering the old Wal-Mart site, County Manager David Cotton had said buying land and building a new DSS building from scratch could cost up to $25 million. Commissioner Kevin Ensley said the old Wal-Mart site would save millions over constructing a new DSS building, a cost that his children will bear.

“They will say ‘Why didn’t you seize the opportunity when you could have,’” Ensley said.

The former DSS director, Tony Beaman, stepped down earlier this year. The department now has a new DSS director, Ira Dove.

The old Wal-Mart could also house the health department, which is in need of new quarters.

Page 6 of 7

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