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Jackson undeterred by price tags or economy in pursuit of library

Despite tough economic times, Jackson County commissioners decided last week to move forward with three multi-million dollar projects.

In a capital projects meeting last Thursday, the commissioners reached a consensus to pursue upgrades to the solid waste transfer station estimated at $3.9 million, expanding the Sylva Volunteer Fire Department at a cost of $2.3 million and the joint venture of building a new library and renovating the historic courthouse for $7.9 million.

“We’re tentatively moving ahead while being aware of what’s going on economically,” said Commissioner William Shelton.

Shelton added that if bids come in high the projects can always be abandoned.

There could be even more capital projects on the county’s plate. Another workshop to discuss construction of a Cashiers Recreation Center and Smoky Mountain High School renovations is scheduled for Thursday (Feb. 19) in room A227 of the courthouse.

Also on the table, commissioners got a surprise request from Southwestern Community College to construct a new $847,000 early college building. SCC leaders claim they need more space for the early college program, which allows high school students to take college level courses.

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Since the commissioners were just presented with the SCC project they decided to give it more evaluation. Shelton said the county has historically supported SCC, but it is difficult to fund projects when they don’t get presented until mid-year.

The library, which is expected to open in December 2010, and the fire department expansion will stay on track since they’ve been planned for years, and the transfer station expansion is simply a must have, Shelton said.

Commission Chairman Brian McMahan said the current transfer station building is not large enough to handle all the garbage in the county and a new building to hold household trash must be constructed.

It was unknown how the county would react to a $500,000 cost overrun on the Sylva fire department, upping the price tag from $1.8 million to $2.3 million. Fire Chief Mike Beck has said the existing fire department doesn’t have enough space.

Town ordinance requires that an additional 16 parking places be put in because the building is being expanded. A dirt cliff sits in the way of the additional parking spaces, requiring expensive grading.

Under an agreement between the city and the county, the county will fund the fire department expansion. The expansion will add four bays, a meeting room, office space, sleeping quarters, a laundry room, kitchen and storage.

It is unclear how big a hit the county will take from the economic downturn. According to the county finance office, it depends on where sales tax figures come in at the end of the fiscal year June 30.

So far the county has asked each department to cut its budget by 3 percent, which would save a total of $1.5 million.

The commissioners are hoping that federal stimulus money could help fund some of the capital projects. County Manager Ken Westmoreland said the county has submitted a total of $31 million in capital projects to the governor, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the Association of County Commissioners for possible stimulus package funding.

The county is waiting to see how much the state will get from the stimulus package and how the state will divide that money up. It is expected to be about a month or two before it is clear how much the county will get, Westmoreland said. Some of the stimulus money may also go toward water and sewer projects for the Tuckasegee Water and Sewer Authority.

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