Hunter explains vote against public hearing on Walton ES funding

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: December 30, 2019 | 12:30 p.m.

Supervisors looking at ways to fund PGCPS’ $171k request

PRINCE GEORGE – A week after opting to vote down a proposal that would’ve allowed a public hearing to go forward relating to a plan to shift borrowed funds from a planned Scott Park concessions and restroom building project to fulfilling a request from the school division to provide funding for the first phase of HVAC remediation at Walton Elementary School, county board of supervisors chairman Donald Hunter said the county is not putting a park ahead of the needs of an aging school.

During their last regular meeting of 2019, Supervisors Hunter, Alan Carmichael, and Marlene Waymack voted against a motion by fellow supervisor T.J. Webb that requested a public hearing be held in early January to inform the public and the county’s lenders about a proposal to shift nearly $400,000 from the county’s springtime borrowing earmarked for the construction of a concession stand and restroom at New Scott Park to a pair of expenses relating to Prince George County Public Schools.

Specifically, $210,000 would’ve been used to purchase three trailers as part of a request from the school system in the county’s capital improvement plan. Those trailers would’ve been in addition to the set of educational cottages that were purchases several weeks ago set to be installed at Walton Elementary School to serve as additional classroom space for students as the school division works to address recurring air quality issues at the aging open-campus school.

The second part of Webb’s proposal would have provided just short of $171,000 to the school system as part of a funding request following their presentation of the first of two phases to execute recommendations from their engineering contractors. This first phase, which will see a series of Walton’s resource rooms, the I-Building gymnasium, and the nearly 40 packaged HVAC units at the school addressed, will cost $415,000, with much of the funding – $244,232.13 – coming from carryover funds reallocated to PGCPS and the shifting of funds in the county’s capital improvement plan from a planned field house project to the Walton HVAC project.

While Supervisor Waymack spoke with The Prince George Journal after the vote two weeks ago, calls and email messages to both Hunter and Carmichael were not returned.

After this month’s special swearing-in ceremony for all elected officials during last month’s election cycle, Hunter, who is beginning his second term as supervisor, spoke about his decision to vote against the public hearing proposal, saying he was not in favor of moving borrowed money from a project the county had already told the public and their lender they planned to spend it on.

“I was against taking the money from something we had already voted on and set aside money for because, if we want to do that, I am not opposed to that. I think it’s a good idea but I think we can find the money other places,” the chairman remarked. “In fact, the majority of the money, we can it from that project but I want to be sure we are not taking it from something that we have already designated.”

That information was revealed a day earlier during a work session last Monday focused on preparing county leaders for the development of next year’s budget as deputy county administrator Betsy Drewry told supervisors they had options for providing a majority or all of PGCPS’ $170,767.87 request. 

Specifically, Drewry detailed, during this year’s spring borrowing, the county had earmarked a particular dollar amount for closing costs relating to the debt issuance and upon completion, they hadn’t used all of those funds. According to documents at the time of the borrowing, closing costs and contingency accounted for $273,473 of the $9.4 million debt issuance. 

With that, Drewry said “roughly $160,000 that is currently not designated to a specific project” exists within the borrowed funds, which could be used to fund a majority of the school division’s request for funding as part of the Walton HVAC project.

Other options for funding were also presented by Drewry for supervisors to consider, including “appropriating from General Fund [undesignated] fund balance, indicating that any carryover or excess revenues the schools collect this year would be applied to that, or just appropriating from General Fund fund balance.”

As of June 30, the county’s General Fund undesignated fund balance totaled, according to Drewry, $23.9 million, who noted that the figure is not calculated daily due to the timing of certain revenue sources coming into the county’s coffers. Since that time, the board has appropriated roughly $2.4 million of those funds, including $1 million being providing to PGCPS toward architecture and engineering costs relating to the development of a new elementary school, likely Walton Elementary’s replacement, along with another $704,000 as part of the school division’s carryover funding request earlier this month.

“As of right now, about $21.5 million is available in uncommitted fund balance,” the deputy county administrator confirmed in an interview.

Following the vote, some, including outgoing school board member and current chairman Robert Cox, Jr. said the actions of the board of supervisors this month implies to the community that the board doesn’t believe the needs at Walton Elementary are a top priority, which has seen several bouts of air quality issues resulting in classrooms being closed for deep cleanings, only for the, as described by Superintendent Dr. Lisa Pennycuff, “chronic” air quality issues to return, which some parents and teachers have said, in some cases, have made them or their children ill.

“I just don’t understand what the other three board members are thinking about,” Cox said in an interview this month. “The utmost importance of this is the welfare of our students and employees that are in that building and by telling us they are not going to have a public hearing, they are not even letting the public have anything to say about it.”

When asked, Hunter said declining to move forward with a public hearing was not an effort to keep the public from commenting on the project as others have argued the county could have proceeded with a public hearing, garner feedback from residents, then act on the proposal afterwards.

“We are not trying to keep the public out of it because, really, we could keep the public out if we wanted to take it from fund balance or something like that. We don’t have to ask the public for that figure,” the chairman explained. “It is because it was a borrowing, that is why we have to get permission.”

He continued, “I didn’t want to take it out of the borrowing, that was my purpose for voting against it. I am not against the project, or the thought, or the classrooms, or any of that.”

Echoing the comments of fellow supervisor Waymack following this month’s vote, he said his action should not be taken as him supporting development at New Scott Park over the needs at Walton Elementary School.

“You have got to have both,” he said. “We have to continue to improve the park and finish the park rather than having [it] halfway done and stop and we can afford to do that,” adding they are looking at those revenue sources detailed during Drewry’s presentation Monday as potential options.

“We are going to talk about that,” Hunter confirmed. “Once again, it is not something you need today. We need it soon, but it’s not an emergency,” he closed. 

Even though the school division has not received funding to cover the $171,000 shortfall in their phase one plans for Walton Elementary School’s HVAC remediation efforts, Superintendent Pennycuff said they will be moving forward with the project, which is expected to see contracts signed by April and work done during the summer. 

Calls and an email message to Carmichael were never returned and he was not on-hand for December’s swearing in ceremony. According to County Administrator Percy Ashcraft, the longtime supervisor had accepted his oath of office prior to this month’s ceremony. 

Copyright 2019 by Womack Publishing
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